Dirty Air: The Silent Killer in Black Communities

Human Rights

Black people are dying at the hands of police officers far too often. The world is glued to the news or their timelines consumed with outrage and sometimes an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. And the list of names of gets longer and longer. Rekia Boyd, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray: The focus on racism and what is going on in our communities is occurring at a level that hasn't happen since the civil rights movement.

But where there's smoke, there's fire. While many of us are hyper-focused, and rightfully so, on the unjustified murders of too many unarmed members of our communities, we are either unaware or unfortunately overlooking a threat that all of us are in jeopardy of perishing from. As the bullets fly we are all silently being smothered by incredibly dirty air and decades of environmental policies that unfairly overburden our communities.

We of course should be concerned about the safety of our children being the unfortunate target of gun violence. But police violence isn’t the only danger we face. If we are to truly defend black lives, we must put the environment at the top of our agenda. Yes, since the death of Michael Brown, over 1,000 people have been killed at the hands of police officers. This is unjustifiable. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the United States in 2014, over 3,600 people have died from asthma, with 990 of those representing Black Lives. If we were asked to say their names we would be here for days and in that time more would have succumbed to the same ailments.

The system of racism and discrimination that has festered for decades, creating a police force that seems to view black and brown people as lesser, is the same system that wraps the hands of injustice around our necks and suffocates us with air that doesn't exist in white communities or the suburbs. Dirty air matters because it impacts how we breathe, and it can exacerbate the existence of chronic diseases like asthma and other respiratory concerns.

In 2013, according to the CDC, 14.6 percent of the 40.8 million African Americans in the United States were in poor health; with the three leading causes of death being heart disease, cancer and stroke. The ailments don’t stop there. In a recent groundbreaking report by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCEH), researchers discovered that “children born to mothers experiencing economic hardships, and were exposed to high levels of PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) — dangerous chemicals formed from burning fuels — scored significantly lower on IQ tests compared with children born to mothers with greater economic security and less exposure to the pollutants."

So how do we save Black Lives? By putting out the sources of the fire that continue to contaminate our communities. While there has been some progress through progressive initiatives and environmentally focused regulations to protect our air through the Clean Air Act, we still have a way to go. That is why it is essential that our leaders at the federal and state level hear our Black Voices loud and clear.

Here is an opportunities for you to help save Black Lives and clean our air:

In August, the Environmental Protection Agency released the final Clean Power Plan, which is a major step to reduce carbon pollution and get cleaner sources of energy in the communities that deserve it the most. Public hearings are being planned across the country, so anyone who cares about clean air and clean energy can have a say in how this plan is implemented in their state…so make your voice heard. Check the EPA website and the list of people to contact to find out when a public hearing is happening near you in your state, then use the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change tool kit to learn about the Clean Power Plan and how it can affect you.

The same respect and dignity we require of our law enforcement should be the same we demand of our local and federal governments. Because where there's smoke, there's fire. And the steady fire of environmental injustice, without action, will surely kill us all.


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