It is already clear that environmental justice will become a pivotal human rights issue in the next century. The basic reason is also clear: viewed through the lens of social progress, the history of our time is essentially the saga of the expansion of civil rights. However halting and problematic at times, the march of humanity toward the frontiers of equality and justice has been inexorable.
Thus, the barriers that have protected the inequalities and injustices of environmental assaults must also fall. Indeed, this Environmental Justice Symposium would not be necessary if the world's deadly pollutants were distributed equally. They are not. Yet everyone here knows that environmental protection should be the birthright of every human being.
In 1999, it is simply intolerable that pollution tends to prey most heavily upon the most vulnerable Americans -- on the poor, the helpless, the minorities, the immigrants, and the children. Our ultimate goal should be, of course, the total elimination of dangerous pollutants; but, while waiting for that blessed day to arrive, we cannot fall silent, smugly accepting the inevitability that those Americans already on the edge of survival should also shoulder the greatest burdens of pollution.
In a wealthy society, the poor are vulnerable, almost by definition. To be poor and a member of a minority group intensifies that vulnerability. To be poor, a minority, and a child constitutes the ultimate in vulnerability.
Of all children, those from lower-income families face the greatest environmental health risks. One in five children live in poverty. African-American, Hispanic and Native American children are overly represented among the 3-4 million who live within a mile of an EPA-designated hazardous waste site.
The childhood plagues of the past have been largely tamed and domesticated. Today, our children are beset with more chronic and debilitating conditions, such as cancer and asthma. Something is terribly wrong when statistics show that cancer, formerly a disease associated with the elderly, is now the second leading cause of death in children and that asthma has increased by
40% since 1980. Even with progress in reducing environmental lead in the environment, there are still one million children with elevated levels in their blood.
Over 2.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year on crops, lawns, and public spaces. This year, Consumers Union reported that fruits and vegetables in child diets have unsafe levels of pesticide residues. Even one serving of some produce can exceed the safe daily limits for children. Every individual has the right to live in an environment free of deadly pollutants and toxic waste, and every child has a right to be born free of exposure to toxic chemicals.
The burden of protection should not rest solely on parents. The science is far too complex for all but the most sophisticated specialists. This is a task for government, and our government should do its job. Thomas Jefferson wrote, as long ago as 1809, that "the care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government."
Environmental protection should be as blind as Justice. It should know no cost or color. Anchored in these principles, I requested, along with other members here today, a General Accounting (GAO) study to review the federal data on environmental health. We asked the GAO study to focus on the disproportionate environmental health impacts on lower income communities and communities of color and to make recommendations to improve the collection, analysis, and accessibility of information.
Some of my colleagues joined me, also, in sending a letter to Vice President Gore asking the Administration to increase the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in order to employ trained staff with a background in civil rights. This action would signal minority communities plagued by the pollution that undermines the health of their children and their hopes for economic opportunity that the federal government works to ensure that all civil rights are respected. A nation that preserves its environmental health lays the foundation for a healthy, stable society that will enjoy the confidence of all its members.
At the beginning of my remarks, I prediced that environmental justice will be central human rights issue of the next century. We should not wait, however, until the next century to find out whether I am correct. We need to act now, and that is why this symposium today -- this crystallizing moment in the history of an irresistible political movement -- is of such paramount importance.
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