“Taking a Stand for Our Land”
Addressing Saginaw’s Environmental Health Inequalities
Pamela L. (Pugh) Smith, MS, REHS
In 1992, the US Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) reported that racial minorities and low-income people were disproportionately exposed to lead, selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish, and agricultural pesticides in the workplace. The government has made incremental strides to address environmental injustices: in 1992 the EPA created the Office of Environmental Justice; in 1994 President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898; July 2007 the first Congressional hearing was held; and in November 2007, Governor Granholm signed Executive Directive No. 2007 – 23. The “EJ movement”, noted as the marriage of the social and environmental movements, explores concerns of social, economic, and environmental inequalities thought to persist given a community’s political weakness and the misperception that jobs and healthy environments can’t coexist. Dr. Robert Bullard describes “environmental blackmail” as the sentiment, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you”.
Saginaw faces an enormous task in tackling our costly environmental health disparities. The City has asthma hospitalization rates considerably above the State’s and one of the State’s largest concentrations of children with elevated blood lead levels. The Saginaw Bay Watershed is Michigan’s largest watershed and contains America’s largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland system. The Saginaw River, the watershed’s principal river, gained national attention for possibly containing the nation’s highest dioxin levels. A survey conducted by Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) found that minority families and their children, undeterred by the “Don’t Eat the Fish” signs mounted by government, are more likely to eat bottom feeding fish, such as Cat fish, from the river. Such an exposure poses greater health risk for this already vulnerable population.
As stated by Drs Paul Mohai and Bunyan Bryant, “To know that inequities exist but to do nothing about them is to perpetuate separate societies and will continue to leave the poor, blacks, and other minorities vulnerable to current and future environmental policy decisions.” Coined by our neighbors, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, we too must join to “Take a Stand for Our Land” – to restore and protect our God-given gift, our environment. Let’s start by ensuring that our community leaders understand that sustainable economic development and healthy environments in our distressed neighborhoods are co-dependent and both are attainable.
Pamela L. (Pugh) Smith, MS, REHS holds a Bachelor degree in Chemical Engineering from Florida A&M and a Masters in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan and is enrolled in their Doctoral program in Public Health. She also serves on many state and local public health boards including the Michigan Environmental Justice Workgroup and as vice chair of the Michigan Environmental Council Board of Directors.