A Toxic Environment

A Toxic Environment

Faculty members shed light on environmental inequities. 
by Sam Anderson

vintage advertising
Vintage advertising, blind to the dangers of lead-based paint

In January of 2016 in the city of Flint, Michigan, a federal emergency was declared to address the approximately 100,000 residents who were exposed to excess levels of lead in their tap water. The water crisis in Flint drew national attention as it became apparent that scientists had proven there was excess lead in the water supply since 2015, while local residents had been drawing attention to the bad taste, smell and appearance of the water for much longer. Despite these alarm bells, state and local officials insisted that the water was safe to drink. The result has been long-term health problems for exposed residents and especially children, who are suffering from cognitive and behavioral issues including low I.Q., Attention Deficit Disorder and developmental delays, among other issues.

According to Gerald Markowitz, Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay and the CUNY Graduate Center, “This was a really excellent example of an environmental justice issue where injustice came about as a result of race and class.” The term “environmental justice” is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” In practice, the concept refers to the fact that marginalized communities often bear the brunt of problems and hardships caused by environmental issues. Markowitz, whose work focuses on lead specifically, has shown that manufacturers who use lead were aware of its toxic effects as far back as the 1920s, when it was being introduced to gasoline. “A whole group of workers who were producing tetra-ethyl lead went insane. It was called ‘loony gas’ by the workers,” Markowitz said.

Toxic water“In the U.S. in 2018, there are still 500,000 kids according to the Centers for Disease Control who have excess levels of lead in their bodies, and a disproportionate number of them are African-American and Latino. This is a result of basic environmental injustice.”
—Gerald Markowitz

Gerald Markowitz
Gerald Markowitz, Distinguished Professor of History

In 1985, Markowitz and his colleague David Rosner wrote an article for the American Journal of Public Health titled “A Gift Of God,” in which they detailed how General Motors, DuPont and the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation (EGC) succeeded in marketing leaded gasoline despite several studies at the time that proved the danger of lead both to factory workers and the population at large via tailpipe emissions. According to the article, at the Standard Oil Company’s experimental labs in New Jersey in 1924, “five workers died and 35 others experienced serious neurological symptoms.”

Despite this, a representative of EGC declared that, “our continued development of motor fuels is essential in our civilization,” and that tetra-ethyl lead was an “apparent gift of God.” It wasn’t until 1996 that lead was phased out of gasoline altogether. Markowitz’s work also shows that problems associated with lead-based paint were apparent as early as the 1930s. “We were approached by the NYC law department, who had a room full of documents that showed that the lead pigment industry knew about the dangers of lead in paint,” said Markowitz. “And, one of the most shocking documents we found in our research was a letter from the head of health and safety at Lead Industries to the former executive director in 1956.”

Markowitz summarized the letter he discovered: “The head of health and safety at Lead Industries was responding to a magazine article about lead poisoning, and he said ‘There is this problem of lead poisoning, but what could we do about it? We can’t do anything because all this lead is in slums across the country, and there’s no way we can clean up slums. And the children who are affected are Negro and Puerto Rican children, and their parents are nearly in-educable.’ It was a classic case of blaming the victim.”

“In the U.S. in 2018, there are still 500,000 kids according to the Centers for Disease Control who have excess levels of lead in their bodies, and a disproportionate number of them are African-American and Latino. This is a result of basic environmental injustice,” Markowitz said.

Markowitz’s work has focused on the history of lead and public health, but much of his research has relied on findings provided by scientists who can definitively prove the dangers of certain substances. At John Jay, two such scientists are Anthony Carpi and Yi He.

Students setting up air pollution bio-monitors
Students setting up air pollution bio-monitors

“I’m interested in looking at alternative monitors for air pollution such as bio-monitors.”
–Anthony Carpi, Dean of Research & Professor

Carpi is a Professor of Environmental Chemistry and Dean of Research who’s been at the college for 20 years. His work largely focuses on the transport and chemistry of pollutants in the environment, especially mercury, which is a developmental neurotoxin that’s particularly dangerous for children and pregnant women. Mercury is naturally found in the environment, but waste incinerators, coalburning power plants, and other industrial processes can emit excess mercury into the air, where it can travel before settling into soil or water. When mercury gets into water, a chemical reaction occurs turning it into methyl-mercury, which can be accumulated in organisms and cause toxicity.

To help local communities that may be exposed to mercury, Carpi has come up with an ingenious method for detecting it. “Generally, monitoring for air pollutants depends on highly technical devices that can be really expensive,” he said. “I’m interested in looking at alternative monitors for air pollution such as biomonitors.” Carpi developed an inexpensive biomonitor that uses moss, which can accumulate pollutants, to study the levels of mercury in a given location. He and his team selected a waste incinerator plant in Warren County, NJ and they bought some sphagnum moss, which they hung around the areas surrounding the plant. After analyzing the moss samples, “we saw this clear relationship where the closer our samples were to the incinerator, the higher the level of mercury.”

Lab testing
Lab testing for environmental pollutants

This cheap but effective monitor benefits local residents who might be concerned about mercury-emitting industries in their area by helping them make their case to local authorities. In the instance of Warren County, a rural area populated by middle-class Americans, residents were able to use Carpi’s evidence to get the company to install air pollution control devices specifically for mercury.

Like mercury, arsenic is a substance that can be found naturally in the environment but is extremely toxic to humans. Chronic exposure can lead to several types of cancers, skin diseases, and it can cause Down syndrome in children. Yi He, a Chemistry Professor at John Jay, has been working on methods to detect arsenic in the environment.

Her work brought her to Bangladesh, a largely rural country where local residents typically consumed surface water, which could be contaminated and unsafe for a variety of reasons. To address this, UNICEF installed groundwater drinking sources, believing it would be safer. However, He and her team detected unsafe levels of arsenic in the groundwater, naturally present in the country. This information helped prevent locals from drinking the water until engineers solved the problem.

“I became interested in arsenic because it is a very toxic element that has significant impact on human health, but previously, we didn’t have many studies on arsenic. I think there’s an urgent call to have better knowledge and a better understanding of these issues,” she said. He’s recent work has been analyzing arsenic content in rice from a variety of locations including Southeast Asia and the U.S. What she found is that rice grown in the American south contains high levels of arsenic, resulting from farmer’s use of arsenic-containing pesticides that leach into the soil and are absorbed by the rice. He’s experiment is the first to evaluate how arsenic in rice can be absorbed into the human body, and may potentially have wide-reaching impacts on public health.

Yi He
Yi He, a Chemistry Professor at John Jay

In the case of toxic chemicals like lead, mercury and arsenic, the communities most at risk are those with the least power and political representation. But by studying the toxic effects of these chemicals and making public the efforts of manufacturers to cover them up, communities can use the power of knowledge to fight back and push for life-saving policy changes to protect themselves from harmful substances in their environment. This is the goal of environmental justice, and at John Jay, professors like Gerald Markowitz, Anthony Carpi and Yi He are working to achieve that goal.