Eboni Cochran knows when there has been a chemical release from one of the manufacturing facilities near her home in west Louisville, Kentucky. Not because of a warning siren, but because she smells it, then feels the symptoms almost immediately: sinus pain, headache, trouble breathing.
“I know it’s not my allergies acting up, when these health symptoms come right after a chemical odor,” she says.
Eboni’s neighborhood is one of hundreds of communities in the United States, where people experience daily health and safety threats from toxic chemicals that are produced, transported, stored or destroyed in close range to homes, schools, stores, and hospitals. Though these high-risk communities are situated in very different parts of the country, they have one thing in common: residents are most likely to be people of color, low-income, and have fewer educational opportunities. They are bearing a disproportionate burden of toxic chemical contamination because they have lacked the political power to demand protection from toxics exposure.
Through the national collaborative organization Coming Clean, partnerships between grassroots organizations in impacted communities, health professionals, researchers, and environmental advocates, local environmental justice groups like Eboni’s are leading the way to better health through safer chemicals and clean energy. This organizing approach offers tremendous opportunities for health funders to support just and long-lasting solutions that benefit all people, especially those most at risk.
Collaborative Organizing is Key to Securing Safe Solutions. Given the enormous scope of the health impacts faced by people of color and low-income communities, it takes a bold, comprehensive strategy to secure healthy, sustainable solutions. Coming Clean coordinates these solutions-strategies exceptionally well. Coming Clean is home to the Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA), comprised of more than 30 local and state grassroots organizations, stretching from Alaska to Delaware, led by people of color on the frontlines of chemical contamination. EJHA is a primary vehicle for grassroots engagement and leadership on toxic chemical campaigns, with a focus on critical issues like chemical exposures at industrial manufacturing and storage sites, and in household products.
Coming Clean and EJHA’s research and reporting on the health and safety threats faced by vulnerable communities helps us understand these challenges. Their report, Who’s in Danger? Race, Poverty, and Chemical Disasters. A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones, shows that 134 million people in the United States currently live in a “vulnerability zone” surrounding high-risk chemical plants, where a fire, explosion, or other disaster could result in injury or death. For example, in 2013 in West, Texas, a chemical fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 and injured over 200 people. Since then, at least 143 additional disasters have occurred, causing 82 deaths and 1,600 injuries.
The report presents national chemical hazard data that should concern all health advocates:
- the percentage of Blacks who live closest to high-risk chemical facilities is 75 percent greater than for the United States as a whole, and the percentage of Latinos is 60 percent greater;
- residents have average home values 33 percent below the national average;
- average household incomes are 22 percent below the national average;
- those with a college or other post-secondary degree is 27 percent lower than for the United States as a whole; and
- the poverty rate is 50 percent higher.
Armed with this data, EJHA organized grassroots groups in these vulnerability zones, in robust campaigns for federal action to prevent chemical disasters that have achieved real-life protections for people who need them most. For example, EJHA, along with national labor and environmental partners, won new federal security standards for high-risk chemical plants, to reduce disasters that harm workers and vulnerable communities. And following the disastrous Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia, which left 300,000 people without water, EJHA formed a partnership with local West Virginia groups and the national organization NRDC to win federal rulemaking process to protect drinking water and public health from toxic chemicals in above-ground storage tanks.
Chemical incidents are not the only way these communities are being disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals. In 2015, Coming Clean’s EJHA launched a campaign called the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, focused on toxic chemicals in products sold at discount retail stores, or “dollar stores.”
Often low-income people and communities of color can only conveniently shop for household goods and food at Dollar Stores. The campaign report, A Day Late and A Dollar Short, shows that the products sold at chains like Dollar General and 99 Cents Only, contain highly toxic chemicals like phthalates and BPA, and the stores offer fewer non-toxic products than mainstream and boutique retail grocers do.
It is no mistake that these communities only have dollar stores; just as a chemical company is most likely to set up shop in a community with less power to resist, dollar stores target disenfranchised “food desert” communities as their customer base. In fact, the three largest national dollar store chains have a core customer base (42 percent) that earns less than $30,000 per year. Forty percent of their customers rely on public assistance.
Efforts are ongoing to get these discount retail chains to set corporate-wide standards for non-toxic products. As a result of local, grassroots direct action, product testing reports and advocacy support from state and national groups, some highly-toxic products have been pulled off the shelves. One of the largest dollar store chains is moving toward dialogue with campaign leaders on their demands for safe product policies. And national health advocacy organizations participating in Coming Clean are working on partnerships with EJHA member groups and local hospitals to increase access to affordable healthy, locally-sourced organic foods.
The Value of Investing in Collaborative Organizing. For some foundations, it can be difficult to find and directly fund grassroots groups doing the most innovative and successful health and justice organizing; the groups may have an effective organizing strategy and workplan, but lack administrative or fundraising capacity that we have come to expect. That is why, for foundations that want to have the greatest positive impact for environmental health and justice, Coming Clean is a valuable investment.
With Coming Clean’s collaborative organizing formula, its more than 200 participant organizations work together for greater improvements to public health and achieve more than any one group could do on its own. Coming Clean’s national health, conservation, and science member groups provide their knowledge and expertise to boost legitimacy of the campaigns, and help create greater access and accountability to government and corporate decision makers. And through EJHA, people working passionately in their own communities have access to that expertise, which builds their capacity, and strengthens a national movement capable of winning protections for public health, even as federal environmental and health policies are under threat from proposed repeals and budget cuts.
I do not wonder whether my grant makes an impact—I know it does. The value to grassroots organizations and local communities is apparent when supporting Coming Clean. My gift has a direct line to the people whose health is most affected by the toxic chemicals and supports the environmental justice work on the ground, in real time.
By funding Coming Clean, Fine Fund supports Eboni’s work to monitor and curb toxic exposures affecting her community, and in other communities where EJHA groups are implementing strategies for transformation to healthy, sustainable communities. We see the collective impact of our investment, on the local, state, regional, and national levels, all at once.
With strong collaboration and grassroots leadership at the local level, Coming Clean builds power for positive change each day.