East Oakland\’s Fight Against Environmental Racism
53 of California\’s 54 known toxic waste disposal sites are located in low income communities of color. Nationally, 3 of every 5 African American and Latino people live in neighborhoods that contain uncontrolled toxic waste sites. Toxic fires burn in San Francisco\’s Bayview/Hunter\’s Point, toxic explosions expose Richmond neighborhoods to noxious fumes, and industrial dumping in the South Bay has rendered the water a stagnant pool of chemical waste. The environmental degradation and health risks disproportionately fall on the shoulders of low-income people and people of color who inhabit these areas.
One particularly egregious and blatant local case of environmental racism is the medical waste incinerator in the Fruitvale area of East Oakland, operated by Integrated Environmental Services (IES), located at 499 High Street in Fruitvale. It is the only medical disposal facility left in California that uses the incineration process, continuously spewing noxious waste products into the air, soil, and water. One such waste product, the most carcinogenic chemical known to science, dioxin, is released into the surrounding low-income and predominantly Black and Latino community as a byproduct of its outdated incineration process. Experts say that just one ounce of dioxin, about the size of an M & M, would be enough to give a million people cancer.
The process is simple. Medical institutions, like Alta Bates Hospital for example, send their medical waste (diapers, IV bags, syringes) to IES for disposal. Materials made of PVC plastic (mainly syringes) contain chlorine, which, when incinerated, releases dioxin. The IES facility uses ovens that burn materials at temperatures approaching 10,000 degrees. At this temperature, the chlorine from the plastic reacts with carbon to create molecules of dioxin. The dioxin leaves the compound, carried by the smoke, and enters the surrounding community as particulate matter.
A few dioxin molecules may settle in a local garden where a family harvests vegetables. Still more dioxin may be carried high into the atmosphere, only to fall with rain into the Bay where fish consume them. (Indeed, the San Francisco Bay is heavily contaminated with dioxin, PCBs, mercury, and lead, and these chemicals have been measured in fish at dangerous levels.) As 90% of human exposure to dioxin occurs through diet, the EPA estimates that eating just a quarter pound of San Francisco Bay fish daily causes cancer risks to increase to a level of nearly one in 1,000. Many Bay Area immigrants and low-income individuals rely on fishing as a free protein supplement to their diet. As their access to fresh, high quality foods are already limited by income, this slow poisoning through what was a free nutrition supplement is just one aspect of the environmental racism of the incinerator.
When people eat contaminated vegetables and fish, they absorb the dioxin into their bodies. Dioxin bioaccumulates in fat cells which absorb the dioxin and transport it to their nuclei, where the chemical bonds to the cells\’ DNA and alters the expression of their genes. As the EPA and its 5,000 studies of dioxin have shown, people who absorb even minute amounts of dioxin tend to develop cancer. Other health problems associated with the dioxin exposure include birth defects, endometriosis, decreased testicle size, decreased sperm count, decreased brain size developmental delay in children, and learning disabilities. Once dioxin enters the ecosystem, even by falling on grass where cattle graze in the central valley, it magnifies up the food chain. Thus the very top of the food chain, the breast feeding baby, is getting the largest dose of dioxin possible.
The process described disproportionately impacts low-income, people of color because of the medical incinerator\’s location. In fact, according to scientists at Communities for a Better Environment, ninety percent of the census tracts that the incinerator smoke blows over are populated by lower income, people of color. Not coincidentally, breast cancer rates in the African American community in Oakland are significantly higher than those of white communities in the Bay Area. This environmental poisoning, coupled with insufficient access to health-care (in terms of both early screening/detection and treatment) has lead to a local increase in the mortality rate of African American women from breast cancer; while the local mortality rate for white woman has begun to decline. It is hard to construe this an anything other than blatant environmental racism.
IES does have other options in terms of medical waste disposal. There are two available technologies that do not send toxic chemicals into surrounding neighborhoods. One is called autoclaving, in which hazardous materials are sterilized essentially through pressure cooking. The other is microwave technology, which is also far cleaner than incineration. IES currently treats only 10% of its incoming waste with its microwave facility. For years community groups have been pushing for the expansion of IES\’ microwaving facility and the elimination of its incineration capacity altogether, but to no avail. Responding to community pressure, Stanford Hospital and Alta Bates Hospital no longer send their medical waste to IES.
Besides alternative disposal methods, the suppliers of the waste materials, hospitals, clinics, and research facilities must reduce the amount of waste they send to IES, particularly plastics. The adoption of reusable equipment, though more expensive due to higher quality materials and the added cost of sterilization and storage between use, would reduce waste immensely. Furthermore, the less PVC products are being used, the less potential there is for dioxin to be released into the environment. Unfortunately, as health insurance companies override the mission of providing health care for the bottom line of money, and hospitals increasingly are being privatized and run like a for-profit business, it is unlikely that they will adopt any changes unless these changes save them money. Ironically (or not) the healthcare industry, whose stated mission is to heal the sick, becomes an integral part of producing the poisons that make people sick. While a contradiction in purpose is evident, a conflict of interest certainly is not; the more people fall ill, the more money the corporations running the hospitals make. There is no way to reconcile this issue until there is free healthcare for all.
Thus far the board of IES has ignored the demands of the Oakland community groups mobilized to protect the health of local residents. Currently, the medical incinerator faces potential denial of a permit renewal from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The permit is required for operation and is issued if the facility is in compliance with the Title V Clean Air Act. The US EPA has recommended that instead of a permit denial, the Air District should impose an Order of Abatement which triggers a series of administrative meetings wherein IES explains to the Air District what steps they will take to bring the incinerators into Title V compliance. IES has been given enough second chances and the ongoing pollution violations have been systematically ignored by the state. Local groups like PUEBLO (People United for a Better Oakland), Center for Environmental Health, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Women\’s Cancer Resource Center, Students Organizing for Justice in the Americas, and many others have formed a coalition to expose this clearly racist operation and the state\’s complicity in supporting it. These groups are building pressure on IES, Oakland City Council, the Air Quality District, and clients of the incinerator to stop incineration and the poisoning of the plants, animals, and people of the Oakland community. At one recent protest of over a hundred people, police barricaded streets for blocks around the area while activists chained and locked the incinerator\’s front gates, chanting, \”If the government won\’t, the people will shut the incinerator!\”