#BlackLivesMatter in Green Building

Bill Walsh | December 12, 2014 | Policies

Black Lives MatterEddie Bautista knows what he is talking about.  He is an award-winning community organizer and urban planner, the Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), a network of community-based organizations in low-income communities of color throughout the city.  He has campaigned to stop waste transfer stations, power plants, incinerators and sludge plants from being sited in those communities, and served a four-year stint as the Director of the Mayor’s Office of City Legislative Affairs during the Bloomberg administration.

In interviews last week with the Washington Post and Grist, Bautista raised eyebrows when he talked about a connection between environmental justice and the Eric Garner case in Staten Island. Garner, who was born in 1970, had asthma that may have made him more vulnerable to the chokehold that killed him. According to the US EPA, since 1980 the disparity in asthma rates between black and white children has increased: “the burdens of asthma fall more heavily on black children than white children . . . Black children are four times more likely to die from asthma than white children.”

Asthma did not kill Eric Garner, a police officer did. The connection Bautista makes highlights systemic injustice that is costing lives in the black community. “Folks should care not only about how racism kills quickly (via the police), but how racism also kills slowly and insidiously, ” Bautista said. He is backed up by 35 years of data documenting disproportionate impacts on people of color, in New York and across the United States, from industrial pollution, chemical exposures, and hazardous waste disposal. [See Table 1]

This week, an investigation by the Center For Public Integrity (CFPI) documented a vivid instance of this disparity in a moving story about Mossville, Louisiana, an African American community settled in 1790 by freed slave Jim Moss, whose environmental justice leaders told their story this year at Greenbuild in New Orleans, earning much applause and pledges of support from the audience.  According to the CFPI story, after a planned expansion, a petrochemical plant near Mossville will be permitted to release “up to 10.6 million tons of greenhouse gases and 3,275 tons of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a carcinogen, into the atmosphere each year. This is on top of the 963 tons of pollutants that were discharged into the air by Sasol and other companies within the 70669 ZIP code last year. . . .”   

Think about this for a minute.  LEED credits set acceptable VOC limits in grams, while the legal VOC emissions from just one of the several facilities near Mossville are measured in thousands of tons.

Eddie Bautista and the people of Mossville remind us why it is unjust to define a “healthy building” as reducing chemical “risks” posed to one group of people - building occupants – while turning a blind eye to the evidence of toxic pollution falling disproportionately upon minority communities living adjacent to the factories, landfills, transfer stations and incinerators that release those very chemicals throughout the life cycle of our building products.

Across the nation people are soul-searching for what they can do to support justice for all in America. In the “Greenbuild Nation” we have the opportunity, the tools and the obligation to do something right now to address the slow and insidious toxic threats Eddie Bautista is talking about. 

Redressing environmental injustice starts when we demand full disclosure of the chemicals used in our building products, the principle at the core of the Health Product Declaration and HBN’s Pharos Project.  Environmental Justice can only be achieved when we build with products that contain fewer hazardous substances, thereby reducing those substances in fenceline communities like Mossville, regardless of whether there is an exposure risk to building occupants. Hazard reduction is the principle at the core of tools such as Cradle-to-Cradle certification, GreenScreen alternatives assessment, Declare labels and the current LEED v.4 materials credit. LEED’s new Social Equity pilot credit, while not yet addressing these fenceline issues, is a work in progress, and provides a place and framework to embed these principles as core values of the green building movement in the future.

Much more needs to be done to transform this industry into a force for environmental health and justice in every community. But this much can be done now, by us, to make  #blacklivesmatter in green building.

Table 1: 30 Years Of Studies Documenting Disparate Impacts Of Pollution on Communities of Color

Asthma is one of the most studied examples of disparate impact. According to the EPA : “The burdens of asthma fall more heavily on Black children. In 2001- 2005, Black children, regardless of family income, reported higher rates of asthma. Thirteen percent of Black children had asthma. This compares to 8% of White, 8% of Hispanic, and 12% of American Indians and Alaskan Natives children. Since 1980, the difference in asthma rates between Black and White children has become larger. Black children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma and are four times as likely to die from asthma as White children.”

1. Anderson SJ, Gardner BW, Moll BJ, Tribble GL, Webster TF, et al. (1978) Correlation between air pollution and socio-economic factors in Los Angeles County. Atmos Environ 12: 1531–1535. doi: 10.1016/0004-6981(78)90097-5 View Article

2. General Accounting Office (1983) Siting of hazardous waste landfills and their correlation with racial and economic status of surrounding communities (Rep. GAO/RCED-83-168, General Accounting Office, Washington, DC). View Article

3. United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (1987) Toxic wastes and race in the United States: A national report on the racial and socio-economic characteristics of communities surrounding hazardous waste sites (UCCRJ: New York, NY, USA). View Article

4. Brown P (1995) Race, class, and environmental health: a review and systematization of the literature. Environ Res 69: 15–30. doi: 10.1006/enrs.1995.1021 View Article

5. Brooks N, Sethi R (1997) The distribution of pollution: community characteristics and exposure to air toxics. J Environ Econ Manag 32: 233–250. doi: 10.1006/jeem.1996.0967 View Article

6. Lopez R (2002) Segregation and black/white differences in exposure to air toxics in 1990. Environ Health Persp 110(S2): 289–295. doi: 10.1289/ehp.02110s2289 View Article

7. Gauderman WJ, Avol E, Gilliland F, Vora H, Thomas D, et al. (2004) The effect of air pollution on lung development from 10 to 18 years of age. N Engl J Med 351: 1057–1067. doi: 10.1056/nejmoa040610 View Article

8. World Health Organization (2004) Comparative Quantification of Health Risks: Global and Regional Burden of Disease Attribution to Selected Major Risk Factors. View Article

9. Levy JI, Chemerynski SM, Tuchman JL (2006) Incorporating concepts of inequality and inequity into health benefits analysis. Int J Equity Health 5: 10.1186/1475–9276-5-2. View Article

10. Morello-Frosch R, Jesdale BM (2006) Separate and unequal: residential segregation and estimated cancer risks associated with ambient air toxics in US metropolitan areas. Environ Health Persp 114: 386–393. doi: 10.1289/ehp.8500 View Article

11. Grineski S, Bolin B, Boone C (2007) Criteria air pollution and marginalized populations: environmental inequity in metropolitan Phoenix, Arizona. Soc Sci Quart 88: 535–554. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6237.2007.00470.x View Article

12. Jerrett M, Arain MA, Kanaroglou P, Beckerman B, Crouse D, et al. (2007) Modeling the intraurban variability of ambient traffic pollution in Toronto, Canada. J Toxicol Env Heal A 70: 200–212. doi: 10.1080/15287390600883018 View Article

13. Marshall JD (2008) Environmental inequality: air pollution exposures in California’s south coast air basin. Atmos Environ 42: 5499–5503. doi: 10.1016/j.atmosenv.2008.02.005 View Article

14. Yanosky JD, Schwartz J, Suh HH (2008) Associations between measures of socioeconomic position and chronic nitrogen dioxide exposure in Worcester, Massachusetts. J Toxicol Env Heal A 71: 1593–1602. doi: 10.1080/15287390802414307 View Article

15. Mohai PM, Pellow D, Roberts TJ (2009) Environmental justice. Annu Rev Env Resour 34: 405–430. doi: 10.1146/annurev-environ-082508-094348 View Article

16. Schweitzer L, Zhou J (2010) Neighborhood air quality, respiratory health, and vulnerable populations in compact and sprawled regions. J Am Plann Assoc 76: 363–371. doi: 10.1080/01944363.2010.486623 View Article

17. Chakraborty J, Maantay JA, Brender JD (2011) Disproportionate proximity to environmental health hazards: methods, models, and measurement. Amer J Pub Health 101: S27–S36. doi: 10.2105/ajph.2010.300109 View Article

18. Fann N, Roman HA, Fulcher CM, Gentile MA, Hubbell BJ, et al. (2011) Maximizing health benefits and minimizing inequality: incorporating local-scale data in the design and evaluation of air quality policies. Risk Anal 36: 1–15. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2011.01629.x View Article

19. Miranda ML, Edwards SE, Keating MH, Paul CJ (2011) Making the environmental justice grade: the relative burden of air pollution exposure in the United States. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8: 1755–1771. doi: 10.3390/ijerph8061755 View Article

20. Post ES, Belova A, Huang J (2011) Distributional benefit of a national air quality rule. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8: 1872–1892. doi: 10.3390/ijerph8061872 View Article

21. Stuart AL, Zeager M (2011) An inequality study of ambient nitrogen dioxide and traffic levels near elementary schools in the Tampa area. J Environ Manag 92: 1923–1930. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2011.03.003 View Article

22. U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (2011) Our nation’s air: status and trends through 2010. View Article

23. Bell ML, Ebisu K (2012) Environmental inequality in exposures to airbourne particulate matter components in the United States. Environ Health Persp 120: 1699–1704. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1205201 View Article

24. Su JG, Jerrett M, Morello-Frosch R, Jesdale BM, Kyle AD (2012) Inequalities in cumulative environmental burdens among three urbanized counties in California. Environ Int 40: 79–87. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2011.11.003 View Article

25. U. S. Centers for Disease Control (2012) National Vital Statistics Reports: Deaths, Preliminary Data for 2011. View Article

26. Jerrett M, Burnett RT, Beckerman BS, Turner MC, Krewski D, et al. (2013) Spatial analysis of air pollution and mortality in California. Am J Resp Crit Care 188: 593–599. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201303-0609oc View Article

27. Clark, L, Millet D, Marshall J (2014) National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Inequalty: Outdoor NO2 Air Pollution in the United States. View Article

28. Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (2014) Who's in Danger? A Demographic Analysis of Chemical Disaster Vulnerability Zones. View Article