What do Flint, Michigan, Jackson, Mississippi, and the region dubbed cancer alley in Louisiana all have in common? They have all been impacted and are still suffering from environmental racism and the results of sustained systemic institutional racism. The long standing structural determinants of health for so many people of color has spilled into many’s ability to have healthy outcomes. In the cases of Flint and Jackson, access to clean water is a human right that their residents have not had especially in recent years. In Louisiana, the area that includes seven parishes between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the air has been polluted for years from a concentration of pollutant plants that have poisoned the livable area for its residents.
Why in a modern society where everyone should have access to clean water, and a system that should have checks and balances to ensure safe environmental practices, do we have so many that are being negatively impacted? Thousands of members of today’s society do not have access to healthy drinking water, or are exposed to environmental toxins.
At some point leaders have felt that profit and greed takes precedence over safety. While society may have implemented measures to be put in place to mitigate environmental issues, it is evident that these measures are not working. The water infrastructure system in Jackson, Mississippi has remained plagued with unchecked issues for years. These issues were further exacerbated due to strong storms that rendered its already crumbling water system useless last year. Tap water coming out like mud with no clear resolution on site is no way to live in a modern society. In Flint, Michigan, residents were exposed to toxic levels of lead in their drinking water, an issue that was also unchecked for years. In both situations, the powerful companies made a conscious decision to deny residents the right to clean accessible water. They did this by prioritizing profits over health.
During the pandemic, many people living on reservations had no access to clean running water which limited the ability to attain healthy outcomes for Indigenous persons living there. Corporate institutions have been placing many in these communities in a position where they are unable to achieve healthy outcomes due to being predisposed to negative factors in their environments. In these cases, their environments are directly impacting their ability to remain healthy.
The residents in these areas predominantly come from marginalized communities or communities of color. One can argue that these problems would not exist in affluent neighborhoods or in non-minority areas. In the lower Mississippi River area, deemed cancer alley, it has become a magnet for many oil refineries and other chemical facilities. The United Nations reported that the Environmental Protection Agency’s data showed cancer risks in this Mississippi area are predominantly among Black people living in the communities. These policies put in place many years ago have caused undue hardship and negative healthy outcomes for so many.
Known as structural determinants of health, these policies have periodically influenced access to vital rights such as clean drinking water, sanitary health conditions, and clean air. Problems that should not impact modern societies, yet greed from big corporations has taken over. Issues that are mainly preventable have become the norm. Communities have become dumping grounds and an excuse for leaders to pass blame around instead of fully resolving the issues. It would seem that people who do not have a voice or know how to advocate are left to suffer inhumane conditions and basic rights. This does not and should not be the case.
In order to achieve positive outcomes, it is necessary for those living within these communities to challenge their leaders and demand better. Natural resources such as access to drinking water is a necessity that should know no boundaries. If you have a fear that your environment is impacting your health or ability to reach natural resources, talk to your healthcare provider, or a community leader that can help. It is your basic right to have access to a healthy environment. It is your right to question when others put things in that environment that are linked to chronic or fatal diseases. It is also your right to demand clean water if your community cannot provide it. It is not necessary to suffer in silence or alone. There is strength in numbers and in educating yourself and family, so enlist whoever you can in your community to demand what we all have basic rights to, access to healthy resources. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”