Chemicals, health, and justice at a crossroads (or, the fundamentally political nature of environmental issues)

"The [Environmental Justice (EJ)] movement," writes Gwen Ottinger, "was galvanized in the early 1980s by the observation that toxic chemicals and other environmental hazards are concentrated in communities of color. EJ activists, many of them veterans of the civil rights movement, began to argue that social equality demanded an end to this 'environmental racism.' Currently, however, it is not equality but health that dominates grassroots activists' campaigns against chemical contamination."

Ottinger is a fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation's (CHF) Center for Contemporary History and Policy, an STS scholar, a former colleague here at U.Va., and my co-editor for a book we're putting together about science, engineering, and the EJ movement. She has a point to make in this post on Health and Justice over at The Center, a blog over at the CHF. Her basic question is: what is lost when justice issues become health issues? She sees four drawbacks. I want to highlight them.

1. "Campaigning on issues of health may make it more difficult for community groups to win concessions from chemical companies."

Ottinger points here to a case she is familiar with from her own field research, that of cancer alley in Louisiana. Citizens of Diamond, LA, sought to convince Shell Chemical to relocate them, having been exposed to toxic chemicals across the plant's fenceline for decades. But "Shell refused to talk about health in their negotiations with the community group." Instead, Shell proposed that relocation "was warranted not because its chemical emissions were harming residents but because the company's previous discriminatory policies and more recent home-purchase program had damaged the unique social fabric of the historic African-American community." The point: the community's fight against injustice would not work with a health claim. Shell and other chemical companies would not engage that form of argument.

2. "Framing their arguments in terms of health engages community activists in scientific battles they are unlikely to win."

This isn't to say that scientific evidence is not worthwhile, but to show that the construction of scientific evidence "makes it very difficult to show that a small population has more than its share of illness, let alone to demonstrate that those illnesses are caused by chemical exposures." Furthermore, when the citizens produce their own empirical evidence, as happens with air monitoring practices called "Bucket Brigades" -- "including maps plotting hazards and illnesses, health studies, and air-quality data" -- their evidence is considered contestable and dismissible as being unscientific.

3. "Foregrounding health also opens the door to victim blaming."

This one I think is particularly well put. If an individual smokes, drinks, or is obese and then gets cancer along a fenceline, the company is apt to argue that the health issue was caused by individual choice, not company emission policy. Ottinger points out the additional difficult here (the irony?), that "In the communities most affected by environmental hazards, these risk factors are likely to be elevated (arguably as a result of the same structural inequalities that concentrate chemicals nearby)."

4. "Replacing justice-based arguments with health-based arguments obscures the fundamentally political nature of environmental issues."

Ottinger considers this the most worrisome of the four drawbacks and I would tend to agree. I'll quote her description in full here:

Whether we tolerate the release of many thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals, most with unknown effects, into the environment is a value judgment. Whether it is acceptable to release those chemicals next to communities of color far more often than near white communities is likewise a value judgment. Moral positions are appropriate, even necessary. We may answer by saying that a precautionary approach ought to inform our handling of toxic chemicals. We may answer by saying that racial inequality is no more acceptable with respect to the distribution of environmental hazards than it is with respect to, for example, educational access. Avoiding this kind of unapologetically political stand by repackaging issues in the supposedly inarguable language of health only helps confirm the notion--used widely to silence dissent--that "politics" has no place in environmental issues.

The point speaks to a much larger conversation on science, politics, and health as well as one about science and environmental policy. Science is a political activity, whether we like it or not. Fortunately, it isn't always a political activity in the macro-political sense of congress and a Republican War on it and how-does-a-bill-become-a-law and overt ideological manipulation of evidence. It is more basically a political activity in that, as a social enterprise, it involves decisions made by humans about what evidence to produce, how to produce it, and how to interpret it. Those decisions take place in community settings (a lab, a company, a town) and thus involve interrelations amongst and between people. They are all based on human values. (See this article, "Democratizing Science, Debating Values," by Abby Kinchy and Daniel Lee Kleinman for more about the larger point.)

As Ottinger points out, using the claim of an "inarguable language of health" or science as support for making another claim, that politics has no place in environmental issues, is troubling. (This is what Shell does.) I wouldn't suggest from this that health is not the goal, but that the way to argue for health might be better understood as a political and justice issue. The question was "what is lost when justice issues become health issues?," not "why are health issues and justice issues separate things."


I totally agree with the first three drawbacks that Ottinger lists. I see it in my research and it is so discouraging to see how, over and over again, communities are dismissed for being unscientific (even when they procure the services of "experts"); they are denied compensation from companies that are unwilling to accept responsibility for health damages; and/or they are blamed for their own illnesses. I'm not clear on the fourth drawback, though. What examples does she site? (I guess I should go and read her blog entry!) My historical research on communities concerned about health damages from low-level radiation exposure (between 1970 and 1992) doesn't reveal a tension between the issue of health and justice. I find that when activism is focused on the specific individuals/communities who are harmed by polluting industries the issue of health is highly politicized by the community and intertwined with justice issues. Is there some kind of shift away from this in the current context?