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Book: 'A Terrible Thing To Waste'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Polluted water in Flint, Mich., Puerto Rico's slow recovery from Hurricane Maria - these are just a couple of examples of the ways that mostly poor people of color often suffer disproportionate harm from environmental crises. But how does the environment shape intelligence and IQ? A new book by Harriet Washington looks at this issue. It's called "A Terrible Thing To Waste: Environmental Racism And Its Assault On The American Mind." In it, Washington argues that IQ, while a flawed metric, is a useful tool to gauge cognitive damage brought on by environmental hazards. When we sat down with her, she said the negative effects of environmental racism can be seen in a town she writes about called Anniston, Ala.

HARRIET WASHINGTON: They had been the victims of several industries and the U.S. government that had various types of noxious chemicals that were used in industry. And when the industry polluted the area, they did not inform the people, you know, that their water, for example, was rife with PCPs. And so people were poisoned steadily over the course of decades without knowing why. Children were dying of diseases that we tend to ascribe to adults - you know, heart disease, kidney disease and a lot of cancers, etc. And finally, when it was found that these people were dying from diseases that were caused by chemical companies, some of the chemical companies basically pulled out of the area.

There were several lawsuits, but Johnnie Cochran's lawsuit did indeed get a huge settlement for them and established a health center so they could finally have these elements addressed. But the money did not last very long. The health center had to close just a few years ago. And now these people have spent their lives there. They're living basically in a poisoned environment.

I thought of it as a science fiction environment, you know? People are growing their plants that used to be in their gardens in big plastic drums because the soil was poisoned. So it's a very post-apocalyptic landscape. And these people who are almost completely black people don't - now have very little recourse. And it's something that's happening all across our country.

MCCAMMON: And you document multiple communities that have been touched by environmental racism. And in each case or in many cases, it's a different pollutant in different communities, but the effects are similar. Why is - why are people of color - this is a simple question, but I want to ask it - why are people of color disproportionately affected by this?

WASHINGTON: For the same reasons they're disproportionately affected by many things. It's various racist policies that have persisted for decades - and in some cases centuries - have herded them into areas where they are exposed to toxins. Segregation is a factor in many urban areas. In Baltimore, black people live in certain parts of the city because they can't go elsewhere. When lead was found to be devastatingly harmful - and it was harmful to everybody, white and black people - when that was found to be the case, whites were able to go to the suburbs to housing that had not - never been exposed to lead and live away from the hazards.

But black people were not allowed to move into suburbs. They weren't allowed to move into white communities at all. They were trapped in these areas where they tended not to have ownership of their homes because of redlining and other racially - racial policies. So they did not have the force that a homeowner might have in terms of forcing some kind of government action. So a lot of racial policies conspire to create communities that are relatively powerless and have been concentrated in areas that are harmful.

MCCAMMON: So you went into your research, of course, knowing that there were some disparities and, I gather, wanting to impact them a bit more. But what was the most surprising thing you discovered in doing this work?

WASHINGTON: I was deeply - I was most impressed by the fact that one argument that industry and the chemists and scientists - that it employs to defend itself - one of their arguments is that very often, we're talking about very small exposures. For example, they'll point out that you're so worried about this exposure to PCPs here, but we're talking about one drop in 118 bathtubs full. Clearly that's not a problem. Sometimes it is a problem. You know, scientists have sometimes made assumptions about thresholds when thresholds don't exist or assuming that there has to be a certain level of exposure to create harm.

MCCAMMON: Overestimating the amount of exposure that could be harmful.

WASHINGTON: Yes. So the thing is that for fetuses and very young children, one drop in 118 bathtubs full can indeed be harmful. They have this exquisite vulnerability caused by the fact that their brains are still forming. And there are developmental windows - for example, axons migrate on a certain day. A certain brain structure is formed on a certain day or a certain week. If they're exposed to a tiny, tiny bit of chemical, any other day, it might have no effect at all. But if they're exposed on the date when that particular structure is being built, it can be a devastatingly harmful effect. So that surprised me - how commonly it is that very low doses can be extremely harmful to a developing fetus. I knew it happened. I didn't know it happened so often.

MCCAMMON: But you say there is a glimmer of hope in that if we do collectively work together, some of these problems can be fixed. What are some of the most important changes you would like to see in terms of public policy?

WASHINGTON: We have to stop the rollback of EPA policies. Under the Obama administration and earlier administrations, we were starting to make real progress. When the current administration took office, there were only four chlor-alkali plants left. The others had been closed. These spew a great deal of mercury into the atmosphere. They were slated to close. But the EPA under Trump decided not to close these plants. A few days ago, the EPA under Trump decided to stop surprise inspections, which is going to, of course, diminish their effectiveness. So we're rolling back the progress that we had made.

Then we have to re-evaluate the way we test chemicals. In the European Union, you have to test a chemical that's going to be used in or near humans for its effect on human health before you can market it. In this country, we market the chemicals and only began testing after complaints that people have been harmed. And one of the things corporations tend to say is that it's so expensive to do these tests. There are things more important than money. Right now, 23 million IQ points are lost every year in children from exposure to lead. And how do you put a price on that?

MCCAMMON: That's Harriet Washington, author of the new book "A Terrible Thing To Waste: Environmental Racism And Its Assault On The American Mind."

Thank you so much.

WASHINGTON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.