EPA plan to roll back toxin protections puts Latinos at risk

EPA plan to roll back toxin protections puts Latinos at risk
© Getty Images

 

My mother was our neighborhood’s nurse. Growing up, I witnessed how pollution and barriers to health-care access worked in tandem to stunt the success of our community on a daily basis. Families I knew, whose children I played with after school, were exposed to toxins and unhealthy air quality at a higher rate than the rest of the population. A health-care system that favored profit over equality left Spanish-speaking parents and young adults without insurance, and the working poor without transportation to far-away doctors’ offices. 

While marginalized groups were left to fend for themselves against the ravages of environmental injustice, my mother worked tirelessly to get friends and strangers alike the care they needed — but she alone could not make up for a medical system designed for inequality. Latinos deserve an even playing field, with just as much opportunity for success and health as their white peers.

ADVERTISEMENT

You don’t have to be a medical professional to understand that mercury, lead and arsenic are some of the most dangerous toxins we know. But that pollution is prejudiced — these poisons disproportionately affect communities of color. But President TrumpDonald John TrumpForget the spin: Five unrefuted Mueller Report revelations Lara Trump: Merkel admitting migrants 'one of the worst things that ever happened to Germany' Financial satisfaction hits record high: survey MORE and Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler are launching a plan that would subject our communities to even higher levels of toxins in our air and water.

Wheeler is currently working with Trump to roll back the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards — commonsense safeguards on some of the most well-known toxins that Latino families are exposed to at a disproportionate rate. Nearly 2 million Latinos live within a half mile of an oil and gas facility. It’s heartbreaking — but not surprising — that many Latino communities face an elevated risk of cancer from exposure to this toxic air pollution.

These standards help prevent 90 percent of the mercury from coal burning power plants from being released into our air, and the results are nothing short of lifesaving: the EPA has projected that mercury pollution standards would prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths and 5,000 heart attacks each year if fully implemented.

Our communities also suffer from disproportionately high rates of asthma, with Latinos burdened by 153,000 asthma attacks and 112,000 lost school days attributable to pollution from oil and gas production each year. This problem is compounded by the barriers to quality, affordable health care faced by Latinos. For example, lack of insurance or fear of deportation can discourage a seriously ill person from visiting the emergency room, and a lack of transportation or the inability to take time off work can make it impossible.

The result is an epidemic of cascading inequality. Instead of keeping and strengthening standards that fight this deadly domino effect at its source, Wheeler’s plan threatens to boost levels of mercury, soot and other hazardous pollution in our air, water, food and communities.

Wheeler’s plan would also have devastating health consequences on pregnant women, infants and children, as mercury pollution has been linked with damage to the brain, nervous system, and fetal development. These toxins have no business being in our air, much less in our babies’ lungs and brains. Our children are working hard to grow and learn, and our communities are working together to give them the best hope of success. To poison their future with mercury, lead and arsenic is unconscionable. 

ADVERTISEMENT

This reckless attempt at rolling back the mercury safeguards is just the latest in a long line of anti-science, anti-health attacks from Wheeler. There’s no justice in forcing communities of color to suffer needlessly as a result. And there’s no compassion in subjecting our children to toxic air that impairs their neurological development and endangers their best chances at success.

We must eliminate the health disparities that face Latino communities every day. We believe that bold, decisive action is needed to fight the pollution that is poisoning our communities and harming our health. Wheeler’s plan flies in the face of that mission, and it’s why we as an organization oppose these rollbacks in the strongest possible terms.

Elena Rios, MD, MSPH is the president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association.