During the past decade, the environment has come to the forefront as a crucial issue. But many people have ignored the fact that environmental deterioration does not impact everyone equally. There is growing evidence that persons and communities of color throughout the world are the most frequently and severely affected victims. This phenomenon is called "environmental racism."
In the last two decades, a number of studies have been published which document the effects of environmental racism on the African-American, Native American, and Latino communities in the
Asians and Pacific Islanders have settled primarily on the West Coast and in large cities such as
One case of blatant racial discrimination emerged at the signing of the 1991 federal Civil Rights Act. In 1974, 2000 Asian, Pacific Islanders, and Alaskan native workers filed suit against
Hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islanders are dramatically increasing. Incidents include the brutal murder of Jim Loo, a 24-year old Chinese American from
While many Chinese, Pilipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Koreans, and Laotians are farmworkers, the majority live in cities. They live in overcrowded apartments or public housing in low-rent neighborhoods. In the majority of these neighborhoods, housing was built before 1950, and thus many families are exposed to toxic lead paint. These neighborhoods have heavy automobile traffic that causes pollution and accidents involving pedestrians. Neighborhoods also lack space for open air recreation. Asians have the highest rates of tuberculosis in the U.S. Sadly, their suicide rate also exceeds that of other communities.
Like African-American and Latino families, Asians and Pacific Islanders also live near Superfund4 sites and factories that spew thousands of tons of toxics into the air.5 In 1987, a Laotian family living in
A blood test indicated that their children had blood lead levels of 25 micrograms per deciliter. In 1987, federal law considered such a level allowable (although it is certainly not desirable). At present, federal law considers 10 micrograms per deciliter the threshold of danger. On the other hand, the blood results for the men in the family showed lead levels of over 50 micrograms per deciliter. They were not only poisoned by the lead at home, but they were also being poisoned at the auto radiator repair shop where they worked.
The Occupational Connection
In 1988, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied 83 auto repair workers doing radiator repair or working near such operations. In many instances, their lead exposure was found to be ten times higher than the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) permissible limit.6 The high levels were a result of the lead fumes produced when workers soldered radiators and from the lead dust present when radiators were cleaned.
Dr. Wendell Bruner, Director of Public Health of Contra Costa County, cites the
Young Hi Shin, director of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, reports that the rate of occupational illness for electronic assembly workers, predominantly Asian and Latino women, is three times higher than for workers in other manufacturing industries. Incidents of headaches, nosebleeds, vaginal bleeding, and difficulty in breathing are common.
Asian workers make up 53% of the San Francisco Bay Area garment industry. Most are women. Asians (along with Latino and African-American workers) still work in 19th-century sweatshop conditions in many
Asians, especially Pilipinos and Southeast Asians, also work on farms. These workers and their families are exposed to pesticides since they work in and live near fields where these chemicals are sprayed. Many small dry cleaning stores are owned and operated by Asian families. Chemicals used in dry cleaning, such as perchloroethylene10, are known to be especially harmful to children. Children of Asian families often accompany their parents to work in these small shops.
As awareness of the issues surrounding environmental racism increases, so does the need to involve Asians and Pacific Islanders in the development of policy strategies, and educational programs. Asians and Pacific Islanders need to be included in organizations which can effect change. Thorough research also needs to be conducted which includes the active participation of the Asian communities. Outreach into communities should be initiated in a way which is culturally appropriate and which involves Asians and Pacific Islanders in creating safe, healthy environments in both their neighborhoods and their workplaces.
1. "Asians in
2. William Wong, "Anti-bias bill hurts Asians," OaWand Tribune (November 20, 1991).
3. Larry Tye, "Hate crimes increase, may hit record in '91," Boston Globe (May 14, 1991).
4. A Superfund site is a contaminated area containing hazardous materials which pose a threat to the public or the environment. The U.S. Congress established Superfund in 1980 for the cleanup of these dangerous sites when the responsible party cannot be located or refuses to pay the costs. The Superfund legislation is known as CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980).
5. A major report by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ found that "race consistently proved to be the most significant among all factors tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents." C. Lee, Toxic Waste and Race
6. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 40, No. 8 (March 1, 1991).
7. "Racial inequality and the probability of occupation-related injury or illness," Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly/Health and Society, 64(4): 567-590, (1984).
8. 'Davis and Rowland, "Problems faced by minority workers." In Levy, B.S., Wegman, D.H. (eds), Occupational Health,
9. Byssinosis is often called "brown lung disease." Symptoms include chest tightness and wheezing. Over a long period of time, the worker ends up continually short of breath and has distended lungs.
10. Perchloroethylene is used as a dry cleaning solvent. It is an irritant to eyes and skin. Other symptoms of exposure include dizziness, lack of coordination, drowsiness, unconsciousness, and death. Recent studies also indicate that perchloroethylene is a suspected carcinogen.
Asian/Pacific Islanders ?õ¬? Vol. 3 No. 1 ?õ¬? Spring 1992