I know firsthand the deadly effects of environmental racism

February 23, 2021 10:29 am

Public domain photo

I charge the city of Phoenix with negligent homicide for willfully ignoring the impact of environmental racism on Black and Brown people and for perpetrating miscarriages in South Phoenix. 

After eight weeks of gestation, our baby’s heart stopped beating. Dead. It was my wife’s first miscarriage. Nancy questioned herself: Had she caused the unfortunate end? Unfortunately, she’s far from alone. Our family in the last five years has had three members miscarry and a friend has had recurrent miscarriages. They are all women who live in South and West Phoenix where pollution has created the worst air quality in Maricopa County.

Nancy’s body may have been in control, but it’s likely that our neighborhood’s air pollution created an unhealthy womb. 

Throughout history, white America has effectively forcibly sterilized women of color with pollution, using environmental pollution as a form of social control. It’s no different today.

South Phoenix residents have suffered the misery of environmental racism since Phoenix was founded in the late 19th Century. White Phoenix continues to benefit from Jim Crow laws, like de facto segregations and classism manifesting into redlining and racial gerrymandering to partition the city at Van Buren Street. Urban planning that used I-17 and I-10 expansions and railroads further contributed to segregation. 

It’s no secret why the “south side” was zoned for industrial plants and landfills, all of which emit harmful toxins into the neighboring residential areas of South Phoenix. The city of Phoenix has labeled this area “hazardous land.”

Black Americans are 75% more likely than any other race to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste. Phoenix has racially distributed people of color into the western and southern parts of the city, neighborhoods that are within a 5-mile radius of freeways — the I-10, I-17 and 202 South — industrial parks, waste facilities and the landfill. 

My wife and I moved from Scottsdale’s racist culture to South Phoenix’s diverse neighborhoods shortly after learning that Nancy was pregnant in 2015, in between the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. We were well aware that environmental pollution settles in low-income communities, but faced a choice between police brutality and air pollution. We thought our family would be safer living in South Phoenix.

We live less than 3 miles from a waste plant, a landfill and the I-17, and 1.5 miles from an industrial plant. A study called “Toxic and Waste and Race at Twenty” states that industrial plants within 3 miles of residential areas are dangerous. One of our family members who miscarried lived within a mile of the 19th Avenue Landfill, which is on the EPA’s Superfund list.  

When Nancy shared the news with friends and family that she had miscarried, some people responded, “Miscarriages are common. You can have another one.” We knew people were trying to help, but it also enhanced the pain. Could we risk another miscarriage to have another baby while living in South Phoenix?   

A woman’s healthy pregnancy is based in large part on her race, employment, socioeconomic status, education and marital status. Nancy met all the requirements to have a healthy pregnancy. However, she is Mexican and two times more likely than white mothers to miscarry in the first 20 weeks. 

Are miscarriages common, or is society attempting to normalize the loss? Studies state that, on average, between 10% and 20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. They are often caused by genetics, thyroid disease, abnormal blood clotting, abnormalities in chromosomes of the embryo, immune and/or endocrine issues.

But we now know that the environment significantly impacts the bodies of pregnant women. 

Two major studies conducted from 2007 to 2015 in Beijing and Salt Lake City linked air pollution to a higher risk of a miscarriage. Researchers concluded that air pollution crossed the maternal-fetal blood barrier and affected the fetus. As a result, maternal health problems like hypertension and pre-eclampsia are more likely, along with a high risk of congenital disabilities and future health problems for the child.  

Women with higher exposure to ozone are 12% more likely to miscarry early in their pregnancies. The same women are 13% more likely to experience a pregnancy loss due to exposure to air pollution. 

Black and Brown women are not only exposed to air pollution, but to systemic oppression and lack of quality prenatal treatment. All of those things conspire to work against those who live in low-income areas like South Phoenix. 

After my wife’s miscarriage, and despite the environmental racism and systemic racial barriers, we were able to have a healthy daughter. The City of Phoenix has used racism to target Black and Brown people for over a century — killing us without remorse or accountability. It is guilty of ignoring the fact that environmental pollution harms women of color at an extremely higher rate than white women. Phoenix judges our babies and sentences them to life on death row before they are even born.

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Rashaad Thomas
Rashaad Thomas

Rashaad Thomas is a United States Air Force Veteran, freelance writer and poet who lives in south Phoenix. He was named Best Poet by Phoenix New Times in 2019. His work can be found in the book "Trayvon Martin, Race, and American Justice: Writing Wrong," The Rumpus, Heart Journal Online, Columbia Poetry Review and others.