Noxious Natures: Global Perspectives on Environmental Racism, an Introduction

By Katy Kole de Peralta

Editor’s note: this is an introductory post to the new Noxious Natures series here on EHN. Under guidance of Dr. Katy Kole de Peralta, three environmental history students at Idaho State University will be sharing perspectives on environmental racism from around the world. 

How we interact with the environment influences our health. Our bodies process air, water, food, sunlight, and even minuscule particles we cannot see. Some interactions harm the body, and some unfairly target those who live nearby noxious environments. When humans choose the risks they opt into, the burden of knowledge and responsibility is placed on the consumer. A wine lover might know that in the post-Fukushima era, many California wines are radioactive-forward. Whether in ignorance or defiance, they sip decaying atoms. When social, cultural, political, or economic structures intentionally expose marginalized groups to unsafe environs the risk becomes involuntary, an act of environmental racism. Environmental racism is a global problem threatening marginalized people around the world.

When social, cultural, political, or economic structures intentionally expose marginalized groups to unsafe environs the risk becomes involuntary, an act of environmental racism.

A 2018 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report confirms that environmental racism disproportionately subjects people of color, regardless of income, to toxic air and contaminated water. In April 2014, Flint, Michigan became a kitchen table conversation when poisonous, red liquid spewed from domestic taps. Even General Motors Corporation took a plant off of the Flint system after realizing the water corroded engine parts. Ignoring standard protocols, the Flint Water Service Center added softeners and chloride disinfectants which further corroded the city’s iron and lead pipes, increasing the already dangerous levels of lead found in children.[1] Many residents still do not have safe drinking water, raising environmental racism charges against the FWSC and municipal government for failing to protect Flint’s predominantly impoverished, black population (according to the 2016 U.S. Census, Flint might be the nation’s poorest city with nearly 45% of its population living below the poverty line).

Connecting Histories of Health and Harm

Environmental racism should be viewed as an ongoing, modern crisis rooted in a deep history of racist politics, infrastructural shortcomings, and capitalistic exploitation. It is more complex than our water supply. Private-sector businesses exploit commodities such as water and minerals, but erase the environmental cost from profit margins. The byproducts of capitalistic goods and services, whether plastic bottles or ravaged landscape, become a social problem, not a business problem.

In this series, three environmental history students at Idaho State University discuss environmental racism in a global context. Collectively, their case studies examine a broader chronological and geographical scope. Emily Morley takes us to the Republic of Nauru (in the south Pacific Ocean), formerly known as Pleasant Island. Once one of the richest states (per capita) in the world, in the 1960s and 1970s, foreign mining companies overran the island search of phosphate. They left behind a wasteland so wretched, the Australian government considered relocating its 10,000 inhabitants. Next, Subigya Shah illuminates the ramifications from e-waste (discarded electronics) in Guiyu, China. In what has become a fairly common practice, developing nations send their obsolete technology (think calculators, fax machines, phones, and computers) to developing countries, where they are recycled or thrown out. Lead, mercury, and phosphorus leak into the soil and water creating a range of health disorders among Guiyu’s poorest and most vulnerable populations. Finally, Jon Madson explains how the company Nestlé sells water taken from Six Nations’ land in Ontario, Canada. Nestlé’s well leaves the Six Nations people without drinking water, while the corporation continues pumping water for profit.

Local environments shape human health. And how humans understand health through the environment changes over time, responding to specific cultural contexts. The examples discussed in this series, titled Noxious Natures: Global Perspectives on Environmental Racism, reveal how marginalized groups are victimized by capitalistic gain and government negligence.

[1] Anna Clark, The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2018).

[2] Jesse Draper, “Announcing H-Nutrition and H-EnviroHealth,” (19 October 2016).