Poisoned People and Poisoned Politics

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A coho salmon carcass in a small coastal Oregon river. (Photo: Justin Bailie/Getty Images)

Little Rock    We’re right to have issues with the police, but bad or good, at least we know when we’re hurt or shot or when someone is murdered, there’s someplace to go, there’s a direction to point our fingers, there’s someone, somebody, somewhere that’s supposed to do something. When we’re poisoned by thoughtless, indifferent corporations and practices embedded in business models, the damage is as real and as permanent and the death as devastating when it comes, even if slower, yet the long timelines provide cover for corporations, Congress, and others to hide, obfuscate, dissemble, and downright lie to prevent having to take responsibility in the full knowledge that it is unlikely that they will be held accountable. Let’s not forget, we’re still hurting, our children may have their health and futures robbed, and our communities destroyed.

The problem with being poisoned is that we can’t see or hear the shot being fired, over and over, even though the impact will eventually explode in our bodies the same way, just more gradually. After 40 years Congress is finally, in collusion with the chemical industry, coming up with a new law on handling toxins because the last one they passed in 1976 was so sorry that it has only allowed the EPA to ban five chemicals in the entire period. The law was so damaged that an attempt to ban asbestos, which everyone knows is eventually deadly, from products was overturned by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and 120,000 people still die from such products globally every year.

Look at lead, which we also know is deadly and a crippler of children particularly. Even with the calamity in Flint, Michigan, which has now also been found in Newark, Detroit, and other cities and their schools, has there been a rush to test? Heck, now! There’s been a rush to posture. Local 100 has tried to get the Houston and Dallas school districts to test for lead, and even found authorization in federal funds that would pay for them to do so, but, ridiculously, we’re gathering soil samples ourselves and depending on a national expert at Xavier University in New Orleans to test them with the help of board members of the Lead Safe America Foundation. One water district after another has sent out letters to their customers assuring them the water has been tested and it’s all good, without telling them about the plethora of lead pipes between the drain and the street. There are city-based ordinances forbidding dry sanding of paint because of the lead and other particulate matter disbursed into the soil, neighbors’ yards, and air, but please let me know of a city that actually enforces this at all.

Now Congress has come to a bipartisan compromise, so whenever we hear that we’re waiting for another shoe to fall, because it’s not like that are coming to any true religion of putting people and their health ahead of companies and their lobbyists. Sure enough, they are partially doing something here in order to preempt some states, like California, that have stiffer laws and enforcement mechanisms, to have to abide by the federal protocols on chemicals that will be developed through this bill. There are waivers on anything done before passage and waivers available after passage which give hope that a failure to receive a tough waiver might be exposed. On the other hand many of us, millions of us, live in “red” states or places like Louisiana and it’s chemical plants that have earned the nickname of “cancer alley” along the Mississippi River, so in such states where we have had little or no hope of effective regulation and enforcement on the state level, finally putting some teeth in EPA’s mouth might give us hope for the future.

Of course on the same day we read the news with a little hope here on this front, we also read about Monsanto being sued for putting PCBs in Oregon rivers for 40 years when they were the sole manufacturer of that deadly concoction. We also read about the NFL giving millions to supposedly fund research into the connection between hard hitting and brain damage to the players, but really only doing so in order to cover up the damage. We also read about the struggle to get ExxonMobil to own up to its impact and knowledge of climate change and the destruction of life as we know it.

It takes a very active imagination to feel secure in the news that we’ve learned our lesson about corporate practice, chemical poisoning, and the need for government accountability.

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