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The sky is falling. No, really.

Author: Arts and Letters

Even if Kristin Shrader-Frechette’s mother hadn’t died of an environmentally-induced cancer at the age of 43, leaving seven children motherless in Kentucky, chances are the Notre Dame professor would still have grown up to be a dynamo researcher and scholar working for environmental justice.

Not only does she know her science—with degrees in mathematics and philosophy as well as post-doctoral work in biology, hydroecology, and economics—she is also well versed in Catholic social teaching.

She eschews the “fluff” image of environmentalists who care only about backpacking and spotted owls, instead arguing that the environment is a social justice issue as well as a prolife one. “What sense does it make to say we have a right to life if we don’t have a right to breathe clean air?”

Shrader-Frechette holds dual professorships in the philosophy and biology departments. She is the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles. She serves on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board and has advised NASA, the United Nations, and governments of many countries on environmental issues. She is married with two grown children.

Do you think most Catholics see environmental justice as an important moral issue?

I suspect they don’t. When you say “environmental justice,” most Catholics probably think of the Sierra Club or backpackers. But environmental justice has to do with public health. It has to do with children, minorities, and poor people dying at higher rates because they bear more pollution.

The United States’ infant mortality rate is the worst in the developed world, in part because many of our environmental standards are weaker than those in Western Europe. Most Americans think that because this is a great country our pollution standards and our health protections are the best, but they’re not.

How are things different in the United States?

Well, the U.S. spends about 0.6 percent of its gross domestic product on pollution control, while Japan and many European nations spend double that. The average Japanese inhales about 2 pounds of pollutants per year, but the average American inhales 81 pounds. In Japan and many European nations, 15 to 18 percent of travel is on mass transit, but in the U.S., only 1 percent. One result: Citizens in about 30 developed nations have longer lifespans than folks in the U.S.

In some European nations like Italy and Finland, organic crops constitute 5 to 15 percent of their total agricultural output. In the U.S. they are one fifth of 1 percent. So there’s less food available here that hasn’t been grown with pesticides.

And those most victimized by pesticides are children because their systems are a lot more sensitive. For example, for infants a lethal dose of a pesticide like organophosphates is 1 percent of the lethal dose for an adult. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has said that in the next 75 years, a million Americans will die needlessly from allowable pesticides. And a disproportionate number of those deaths will be among children. They really are the canaries in our environmental coal mines. That’s why as a mother, and as a Catholic, I’m concerned about environmental justice.


What are all these children dying of?

*p. In the case of pesticides, many of the deaths are from birth defects and cancer. Cancer kills more children ages 1 to 5 than any other disease. It kills four times as many children as child abuse, and twice as many as automobiles.

The leading cause of death for all of us under 85 is cancer, and 90 percent of those cancers, according to the World Health Organization, are environmentally induced and theoretically preventable. Now those environmental factors include smoking or other lifestyle variables, but that still leaves a sizeable number that can be attributed to pollution. It’s uncontroversial that most cancers of children are environmental. They’re not smoking or overeating.

A classic 2002 article in The New England Journal of Medicine studied 90,000 identical twins to determine whether their cancers were genetic or environmentally induced. Overwhelmingly they said virtually all the cancers were environmental.

It’s also been clearly established that there is a massive environmental component in heart disease, with about one third of all heart disease associated with air pollutants. Using National Cancer Institute data, I can tell you that in Chicago alone, eight people die of heart disease each day just because of particulate pollution.

*How much higher are those rates in minority communities? *

I can give you the statistics for Gary, Indiana because I do a lot of work there. That community is about 50 percent Hispanic, 40 percent African American, and about 10 percent white. In that area nonwhites bear eight times the pollution of whites.

One reason is that low-income housing is built in areas where land is cheapest and tends to be more polluted. Companies also deliberately target low-income neighborhoods for dumping or noxious facilities because their residents are less likely to file a lawsuit or otherwise protest the decision. I can show you case after case where companies locate facilities not based on where their suppliers, their distributors, or their raw materials are, but based on where they’re not going to have any problem with the community if they violate pollution laws.

African American children die of asthma at four times the rate of white children. Even when you control for income and health insurance, blacks have higher incidences of disease, often because of pollution. Racism is alive and well in our society.

Some studies say those higher incidences in minority communities might be genetic. Those studies most likely come from industry-created front groups, like the American Council on Science and Health. It sounds respectable, doesn’t it? But it’s a chemical and tobacco industry-funded front group created to generate statistics conducive to their interests. We all know you can’t always trust studies funded by the tobacco industry about whether smoking is dangerous. So why would you trust studies about pollution funded by polluters—who have obvious conflicts of interest?

*So it seems the science gets politicized. *

Yes. As a member of the Science Advisory Board for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I’ve learned that three fourths of all scientific studies in the U.S. are paid for by special-interest groups whose agenda is often to show that some product or pollutant is not harmful.

So only 25 percent of scientific studies are done by more objective groups like the National Institutes of Health that use peer review and other safeguards. Of those, more than half are for the military. So about 12 percent of U.S. scientific research is done by people with no obvious conflict of interest.

Those special-interest groups are going to generate the science they want to generate. Most of their studies use very small samples of about 50 people and are very short-term. One by a famous cancer expert excluded all minorities from his studies.

The government never used to employ industry studies in setting pollution standards. But President George W. Bush changed that. And after he weakened many pollution standards, he knew that pollution-induced death rates would increase. To cover up the health effects of his policies, he dictated that every death of a person age 70 or older was to be counted as only 62 percent of a death. People need to know facts like these. This is not about Democrats and Republicans. It’s about big people with money and little people without it.

*So what can the little people do? *

We can educate ourselves, and we can fight for those who often can’t protect themselves. My students at Notre Dame and I do a lot of pro-bono scientific work—providing expertise to poor people and minorities—trying to help level the playing field. Every child has a right to breathe clean air, not just rich people’s children.

We can join a group like Network, the Catholic social justice lobby, or Physicians for Social Responsibility. All we have to do is be active in our community. If we would respond to one of the 3,000 or so environmental impact assessments and risk assessments done every year in the U.S., we could change things. That is what democracy—and Catholic social justice—is all about. The bumper sticker is right: Democracy is not a spectator sport.

We can’t just blame the corporations. We’re all partially culpable because we enjoy cheaper energy and cheaper consumer goods because we fail to control pollution as we should, because the poorest among us work in sweatshops, because poor neighborhoods receive our hazardous waste dumps. Catholics need to realize all the ways in which we enjoy economic privileges because our economic savings are borne on the backs—and the health—of the poor and most vulnerable.

*But wouldn’t it be too expensive to have all those controls? *

It’s almost always easier to prevent pollution than to clean it up, as a 2004 U.S. National Academy of Sciences study again showed. The only reason some people are able to claim that pollution prevention is not cost-effective is that they don’t count all the health benefits of clean air and water. Instead they count only the costs of pollution controls, not the benefits. Asthma alone costs the U.S. economy more than $13 billion annually in lost workdays, medical costs, and so on—but such figures are ignored by those who make profits while making other people sick.

We knew in 1960 that a 10 percent increase in particulate pollution causes a 1 percent increase in infant mortality. But have we done anything about it? Not much. Increasing utility rates by a few dollars a month is worth it, when 27 million U.S. children under age 13 have asthma, and when U.S. asthma rates have doubled in the last 10 years.

Many polluters play to the basest instincts of consumers, even though 75 to 80 percent of Americans say they would pay more for environmentally sound products.

*How can people get more educated about this? *

We need to have a more scientifically literate society so that people can see the flaws in polluters’ arguments. Otherwise people will be misled by the rhetoric of wealthy special interests.

Many of us get our science news from TV, but we have to remember that two of the three major TV networks, NBC and CBS, are owned by nuclear polluters and nuclear weapons manufacturers, GE and Westinghouse, respectively.

The result? Media watchdog groups have documented biased media coverage by NBC and CBS. GE, for instance, has pollution and safety violations that are among the worst in the entire U.S. Yet Roper polls show people consistently rate GE in the top 10 of U.S. companies for environmental and workplace protections. Why? GE and every other major polluter pay public relations firms to “green” their images—and the public falls for the rhetoric. Polluters are controlling information in a way that has never been done before.

Polluters’ PR machines also try to paint environmentalists as outdoorsy people who care more about the spotted owl than about human life. Environmental justice is not mainly about owls but about the fact that our children are dying.

*Some people say pollution is the trade-off we have to make for the technology that helps us live longer. *

That is a misleading argument because it lumps together all technology and says, “Technology makes us live longer.” People are living longer, mostly because of medical technology and sanitation, but our longevity rates would be even better if we weren’t so careless in using chemical and nuclear technologies.

*What are other problems? For example, what about garbage and waste? *

We generate more than double the per-capita rate of municipal waste that many European countries generate. We in the U.S. don’t need rocket science to solve these problems. We simply need to adopt many of the same strategies that some European nations adopted long ago: better public transit, better controls on pesticides, less wasteful packaging, electric lights that turn off when no one is around.

We could give people incentives for using less electricity. Now we give the cut rates to the people who use more electricity. Regarding automobiles and oil, we haven’t improved our corporate average fuel economy standards since 1984. There are hundreds of things that could be done but aren’t. Why? Because most of our government is not by the people. It’s by campaign donors and special-interest groups. We have to change that. We have to do the work of being Catholics and being citizens.

*So it’s not enough to just recycle or buy organic for my own kids so they don’t consume pesticides? *

It’s good that people recycle, but if that’s all they do, it’s not enough. Buy organic foods, but give back to the community. If we were born with higher IQs or a bit more money, it’s just a stroke of luck. We’re obliged to share. That’s at the heart of the Catholic doctrine of the common good.

It was Pope Pius XI who said, “Social justice demands not just that you reform your personal morals but that you reform societal institutions.” Other popes, like Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, all point out the duty of Christians to be active in the world, to help stop injustice.

Too often I think that we Catholics have bought into individualism and materialism. We’re not the leaven in our communities that we should be. It would be so easy to change that. The average American watches four hours of TV a day. What would happen if even half of us spent even an hour a week in some sort of democratic way, working with a local civic group to reduce pollution or demand enforcement of regulations? The world would change.

*If you were president or head of the EPA, what are the most urgent environmental issues you’d go after? *

Air pollution is one. Even Bush’s consultants admit that particulate pollution causes 30,000 casualties every year.

I’d make it in industries’ interest to control pollution. Virtually every time government has asked for health standards, such as child labor laws or improved auto emissions, the relevant polluters or industries have said they would go broke if they had to make the changes. We need to make it in industry’s interests to do the right thing. People may have to pay a little bit more for products, but that’s better than the rich among us having a better life at the expense of the poor.

*Could we come up with forms of sustainable energy if we put money into it? *

There’s no doubt about it. Studies have shown that three states could supply much of the energy for the country using wind. Of course, the transmission lines and infrastructure need work, but wind is one of several directions in which we should move. Instead we’re addicted to dirty fossil fuels.

Twenty years ago a physicist friend of mine wrote a report for the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment about solar energy, proving it was cost-effective for 40 percent of energy needs. So why didn’t we go to onsite solar? Because of lobbying and campaign contributions by the nuclear, coal, and oil industries. Science and health were hijacked by politics.

*So you don’t get discouraged that this is all hopeless? *

No, no. There are lots of success stories. Look at Erin Brockovich, the single mother who took on a polluting California power company. Saints and geniuses are everywhere, in all sorts of unsuspected places. Every day I see brilliant, socially committed Notre Dame students.

Do you know what percentage of people supported the American Revolution? If historians are right, it’s 14 percent. Imagine how the U.S. would change if 14 percent of our citizens were both scientifically informed and deeply committed to justice. We need a new American revolution to reclaim our democracy.

If you are part of a family and you never take your turn at dishes, you’ve got a problem. If you’re a citizen and you never do your part to improve your community, you’re a free rider. That’s just not right.

We don’t have to do incredible things. We each just have to begin by doing a little.

This article appeared in the April 2006 (Volume 71, Number 4; pages 18-23) issue of U.S. Catholic.

ND students win some for the Gipper

It was three days before Christmas in 1993 and Professor Kristin Shrader-Frechette was making a gingerbread house with her then-13-year-old daughter. The phone rang and the caller told her that the U.S. government had finally released the draft of an environmental impact statement about a uranium enrichment facility slated to be built by a multinational corporation in a poor, African American community in northwest Louisiana.

“It wasn’t an accident they released it when most of us who do pro-bono work, as academics, are grading exams or are on Christmas vacation,” she says. But she called up her graduate students, promising to feed them over the holidays if they’d help her. Together with some other scientists, they helped stop the plant from being built by challenging serious technical and scientific flaws in the environmental impact statement.

“The impact statement used 10-year-old data, did only a partial cost-benefit analysis that ignored health care, and dismissed a 10-fold increase in radiation doses to local children,” Shrader-Frechette explains. “The plant would provide no local jobs, and residents were going to have to pay more in services for this plant than it would ever bring in new taxes. It was a total disaster, and the community was completely opposed.”

Stopping that plant was one of the first major U.S. environmental justice victories. But it wouldn’t be Shrader-Frechette’s—or her students’—last. They have worked successfully to protect Latino communities in New Mexico, African American children in Tennessee, and Native Americans in Nevada.

A few years ago the World Health Organization called and asked for Shrader-Frechette’s help in defending spraying for malaria in Africa. Some environmentalists were arguing that spraying should cease because it might destroy some plant species.

“Sometimes environmentalists are more concerned about non-human species than they are about people who are going to die,” says Shrader-Frechette. “But in Africa less than a dollar per person is spent on health care, and spraying for malaria often is the only way to control the disease.”

With the help of her students, she presented a paper defending spraying to the United Nations. They were convinced, and the spraying continued.

Students get extra credit for helping Shrader-Frechette with her pro-bono work. “This is a win-win for the communities and for the students,” she says. “The communities get free help, and the students get baptized into social justice.”

—Heidi Schlumpf

Originally published by The Editors of U.S. Catholic magazine (in U.S. Catholic) at on April 01, 2006.