Brown, foul-smelling water spewing out of faucets. Children poisoned by lead. Families with aching joints, rashes and hair loss. These troubling images and more have been flowing out of Flint since late last year as the scope and impact of the city's water contamination crisis has become increasingly clear.
But pollution, contamination, and toxic chemicals that harm children's health aren't confined to Flint. America's children are being exposed to a host of toxic chemical hazards. From deteriorating lead paint still widespread in many communities, to toxic toys sold at dollar stores, to dangerous chemical facilities near homes and schools, we're putting our kids in danger.
All children, but especially those under age five, are susceptible to toxic chemicals because their bodies and brains are still growing and developing. However, there is a striking inequality in the likelihood that children of color and those living in poverty will be exposed to dangerous substances. That disparity is especially clear when we look at facilities that use, store, or produce toxic chemicals.
A recent report from the Center for Effective Government found that nearly one in 10 schoolkids – 4.9 million – attend school within a mile of a hazardous chemical facility. Almost two-thirds of the kids who live in homes near these facilities are children of color. Children of color living in poverty are especially hard hit, with poor black and Latino children more than twice as likely to live in these "fenceline communities" as white children who are not poor.
Living near a dangerous chemical facility increases the chances of being exposed to toxic air or water pollution.
Living in a fenceline community also significantly increases the risk of exposure should a large-scale chemical disaster occur. Again, that danger is greater in communities of color. Facilities located in these communities have almost twice the rate of incidents like chemical leaks, fires, and explosions as those in communities largely populated by whites.
Tackling this environmental injustice requires significant effort, but there are solutions. First, national standards should require that manufacturers and chemical facilities switch to the safest alternative substances available, when feasible. This has already happened at water treatment plants and bleach manufacturing facilities across the country, but many more plants continue to use deadly chlorine gas and other toxic substances.
Other steps local, state or federal agencies can take include adopting new zoning laws or revising existing ones to block construction of new or expanded chemical facilities near homes and schools and to prevent new homes and schools from being built in fenceline zones; requiring chemical facilities to continuously monitor and report their fenceline-area emissions to agencies and the public; and improving enforcement of existing environmental and workplace health and safety regulations.
Exposure to chemicals can damage young brains, disrupt learning, wreak havoc on developing reproductive systems and cause cancer. We owe it to these children to require commonsense solutions to reduce or eliminate such dangers.
Ronald White is the director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government. Molly Rauch is the public health policy director at Moms Clean Air Force.