Toxic Heritage

Collaborative research

What’s the harm?

By on August 12, 2020

Why does it matter where the pollution came from decades or even centuries ago? Why should we care who has been affected by toxins in the soil or particulate matter in the air? What’s the harm of celebrating the beautiful and positive aspects of our history, rather than digging into painful and unsavory topics such as sewers, coal ash, and dry cleaning chemicals?

These questions are critical for a number of reasons.

First, they require us to pay attention to who has borne the brunt of the toxins. The ramifications of these answers land us in the center of conversations about health disparities and the social determinants of health. When highways plowed through communities of color and low income communities in the 1960s and 70s, the devastated neighborhoods and left deep scars as communities were displaced and divided. But the ongoing impact of noise, vibrations, fumes, lead deposits, and toxic runoff from those highways continues to impact the health of the remaining residents whose homes weren’t demolished but who now find themselves as near neighbors to interstates. Combined Sewer Overflow systems carried the waste of households away from prosperous neighborhoods and dumped it into waterways flowing through low-income and communities of color.

Combined sewer overflow outlet gushing waste after a storm event

During periods of heavy rain, combined sewer systems can overflow into Indiana’s rivers. – Photo courtesy Frank Suarez

Second, they require us investigate who has created the harm and what is their responsibility for its ongoing damage. Knowing full well the dangers of lead paint, manufacturers marketed it with clear racialized messages, as The Stakes podcast “Lead Poisoning: Heavy Metal Episode” recounts. Indianapolis’ Site 0153 is a ground water contamination site that was once considered for inclusion on the National Priorities List (aka Superfund sites) but has been instead referred to Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s State Cleanup Program as an alternative. This leaves the state to investigate the source of the chlorinated solvents from the 89 potential polluting sites in the area.

map of site 0153 showing location of Potential Responsible Parties
SIte 0153 showing Potential Responsible Party (PRP) locations. (IDEM)

Third, these questions compel us to reckon with the human cost of centuries of harm and to have the courage to enact change. The research is historical, but in exploring memory practices and the way the narratives (and erasure) of toxic harm we are forced to look forward. Recognizing the injustice of past practices challenges us to take a moral stance against the systemic racism and oppression that has perpetuated the harm. They compel us to consider the unsustainable practices of consumption and extraction that are overwhelming the planet. The require us to listen to the voices of community members, people of color, and Indigenous people who have long fought to preserve and restore their neighborhoods, homelands, and territories and to learn from their principles of environmental justice.

Asli Mwaafrika addressing the Climate Justice Youth Summit, NYC, September, 2019.
Asli Mwaafrika, Kheprw Institute youth leader, addressing the Climate Justice Youth Summit, NYC, September, 2019.

Finally, considering toxic heritage frames our actions in a global context and requires us to grapple with the scope and scale of human impact on our climate, environment, and entangled systems of resource extraction, production, consumption, and waste. It reveals the inextricable position of every person on the planet in the systems of power that serve and are served by the systems, at the same time it challenges us to imagine different ways of being in the world, using resources, and respecting each other’s rights and humanity.

So toxic heritage matters. Urgently.


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