Is There A Human Right To A Healthy Environment? Communities Near Louisiana Vinyl Plants File Historic Complaint With Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Bill Walsh | March 10, 2005 | Policies

Attorneys Nathalie Walker and Monique Harden, founders of Advocates For Environmental Human Rights

Attorneys Nathalie Walker and Monique Harden, founders of Advocates For Environmental Human Rights

When it comes to building materials, it is safe to say that no other building material has a more deleterious effect on the lives of people in Mossville, Louisiana than vinyl. They believe they are the victims of human rights abuse.

Mossville is an unincorporated community, founded by African Americans in the 1800's on the outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, the vinyl capital of America. Readers might recall the scene from the HBO documentary Blue Vinyl[1] where a little white clapboard house is put on a flatbed truck and moved out of harm's way . . . that was Mossville.

Vinyl manufacturing is not the only problem in Mossville. Fourteen major industrial facilities surrounding the town released over two million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2002, according to the US EPA. [2] But vinyl manufacturing is a very big problem in Mossville.

Consider that only vinyl manufacturers in the area are required by law to report emissions of the human carcinogen vinyl chloride, or ethylene dichloride. These chemicals were documented in 2001 by the EPA to be present in the local air at levels exceeding official standards by factors of 100 and 20 respectively. Vinyl is also the likely source for the dioxin in the bodies of local residents, which the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found to be two to three times higher than the levels documented in the national control group.[3]

The dioxin findings were released six years ago. Since that time, both the federal and state environmental authorities have refused to even to conduct further investigation into the nexus between the industrial dioxin emissions and the elevated dioxin levels in residents, never mind to stop issuing permits to dioxin-generating plants located within a half-mile of the town. According to the Mossville Environmental Action Network (M.E.A.N.) three of the residents tested by the ATSDR have already died of conditions thought to be related to their chemical exposure.

On March 7, 2005, lawyers from the group Advocates for Environmental Human Rights[4] filed a petition on behalf of Mossville residents with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States.[5] The petition documents: "interference with fundamental human rights to: life, health and a clean and ecologically secure environment; privacy as it relates to the inviolability of the home; equality; and freedom from discrimination." They are seeking remedies as basic as "medical services" and as far reaching as "reform of the existing environmental regulatory system."

As a matter of law, this is an ambitious endeavor. When was the last time the Bush Administration took orders from an international agency?

On the other hand, attorney Harden was a mastermind behind one of the first the successful environmental racism challenges to the US EPA's Office of Civil Rights, a strategy that in 1998 successfully blocked construction of the world's largest proposed vinyl production plants, a Shintech facility in St. James Parish, Louisiana.[6]

Imagine: a human right to a healthy environment. What a concept.

Check out NPR's Living on Earth radio broadcast of the Mossville environmental human rights petition at Click on "Environmental Human Rights," and you can hear an audio replay of the broadcast or read the transcript.



In February, the City of San Francisco released the Plastic Pipe Alternatives Assessment, a report that evaluates the environmental preferability of five major plastic pipe types (ABS, HDPE, PEX, PP, and PVC). Key characteristics evaluated include chemicals used or released in the life cycle of the pipes that are persistent bioaccumulative toxicants (PBTs), carcinogens, reproductive toxicants or otherwise have high priority toxic characteristics. The report also looks at end of life options for recycling, evaluates performance and market availability, and concludes with recommendations for pipe polymers to avoid or prefer.

Find the plastic pipes report on HBN's website at


The Healthy Building Network will be at the EnvironDesign9 conference, scheduled for April 20 to 22, 2005, at the Marriott Marquis in New York City. Now in its ninth year, EnvironDesign has a proven track record as a pioneering and innovative conference known for consistently raising the bar in an effort to ensure that sustainable design is the defining issue for the 21st century. This year's keynote presentations will be given by Dr. Lance Secretan, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, Deirdre Imus, Leslie Hoffman and Robert Fox, and Julia Butterfly Hill.

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[1] Blue Vinyl: A Toxic Comedy,

[2] Companies required to report toxic releases to the US EPA: Aire Liquide; Biolab; Certainteed; Conoco Phillips; Entergy Power Plant; Excel Paralubes; Georgia Gulf; Lyondell/Arco; Olin; PHH Monomers; PPG Industries; Sasol; Tessenderlo Chemical; Tetra Chemicals.

[3] ATSDR, Division of Health Consultation, Health Consultation: Exposure Investigation Report Calcasieu Esturary, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, CERLIS No. LA0002368173 (November 19, 1999). Available at

[4] Advocates For Environmental Human Rights is a non-profit, public interest law firm founded by former Earth Justice Legal Defense Fund attorneys Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker.

[5] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,