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A Terrible Thing to Waste
Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind
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- Middle-class African American households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than those of very poor white households with incomes below $10,000.
- When swallowed, a lead-paint chip no larger than a fingernail can send a toddler into a coma — one-tenth of that amount will lower his IQ.
- Nearly two of every five African American homes in Baltimore are plagued by lead-based paint. Almost all of the 37,500 Baltimore children who suffered lead poisoning between 2003 and 2015 were African American.
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Nature has color-coded groups of individuals so that statistically reliable predictions of their adaptability to intellectually rewarding and effective lives can easily be made.
—WILLIAM SHOCKLEY, “MODELS, MATHEMATICS, AND THE MORAL OBLIGATION TO DIAGNOSE THE ORIGIN OF NEGRO IQ DEFICITS,” REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH1
Long before William Shockley’s 1971 assertion that the intelligence of Americans is innate, inherited, and permanently stratified by race, the nineteenth-century scientists known as the American School of Ethnology had trumpeted the same belief, sans statistics. Their assertions were preceded by a long, data-free history of speculation by Europeans on the lower intelligence of Africans and their descendants, speculation that had traditionally supplied a rationale for enslavement.
The question of whether innate differences in intelligence exist between blacks and whites goes back more than a thousand years, to the time when the Moors invaded Europe. Although we focus on European claims that Africans and their descendants are relatively unintelligent, some people of the African diaspora, including the scientifically adept and accomplished Moors, have returned the favor. As Richard E. Nisbett, author of Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, writes, “The Moors speculated that Europeans might be congenitally incapable of abstract thought.”2
But no Moors practiced science in the United States, and in 1840 the government falsified census data to support enslavement with the spurious claim that slaves enjoyed much better mental health than freedmen. Thereafter, freedom was held to be detrimental to African Americans’ mental health.3
In 1981, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man documented the long history of painstaking but rigged data collection and analysis enlisted to support the cherished belief in the innate intellectual inferiority of blacks. So, too, have Even the Rat Was White, first published in 1976, by the late psychologist Robert V. Guthrie, as well as a slew of more recent works.4
Today, the hereditarian agenda still drives fevered debate about intelligence, or to be more precise, about IQ. Accusations of “racism” and “political correctness” fly in reaction to each provocative new publication on race and IQ. The headlines, and too much of the scientific discourse, dwell on the 15-point gap between the average scores of U.S. whites and African Americans.
Much hand-wringing ensues: What can be done? Are interventions futile? In the end, this very public and very political drama drives a false perception of genetics as the chief factor determining IQ. And the sniping between hereditarians and their critics has accomplished nothing except a great deal of harping on the prohibitive expense and futility of intervening to close the gap. After all, hereditarians argue, nothing can be done to correct the “innate,” genetically dictated, lower-IQ status of African Americans. In tones of infinite regret, their screeds and interviews insist that devoting resources to closing it would be a Quixotic and irresponsibly expensive task: the racial IQ gap is impervious to treatment and here to stay.
This bleak prospect is not supported by the facts.
Salt of the Earth
Consider that in 1924, the United States closed another 15-point IQ gap with a single, cheap step: we added iodine to salt.5 The government didn’t set out to increase IQ—that was a happy accident, the consequence of a program intended to address nutritional deficiency diseases, chiefly goiters, that are caused by insufficient iodine in the diet.
Before 1920, whether or not your diet contained sufficient iodine depended largely on where your water came from. Seawater, for instance, is rich in iodine, which is fortunate for countries like Japan, which has some of the world’s most iodine-rich water, and boasts one of the world’s highest average IQs.
But in a place like Michigan, where the natural water supply was largely runoff from iodine-free glaciers, much of the water and soil in which vegetables grew lacked iodine. This deficiency heightened the rates of goiter, an enlarged thyroid that causes an unsightly lump in the neck. Goiters are rarely life-threatening, but some require medication or surgery.6
For just a few dollars a ton, adding iodine to salt (in the form of potassium iodide) greatly lowered the incidence of deficiency and goiters. But during World War II, when a new crop of Air Force recruits was tested with the Army General Classification Test, scientists noticed a pattern: men from low-iodine areas who showed improved thyroid health also scored substantially higher on the intelligence test. It turns out that iodine deficiency is an unrecognized cause of mental retardation, especially, but not exclusively, in unborn children. Now we know that iodine bolsters healthy brain development because it is an essential component of thyroid hormone, which helps to direct the complex development of the fetal brain.
Yet iodine deficiency remains the world’s leading cause of preventable mental retardation. Prenatal iodine deficiency as well as deficiency in adulthood leads to compromised intelligence as measured by IQ testing, especially in the developing nations that report some of the world’s lowest IQ scores. In 2007, Kul Gautam, the deputy executive director of UNICEF, announced, “Today over one billion people in the world suffer from iodine deficiency, and 38 million babies born every year are not protected from brain damage due to IDD.”7
Almost one-third of the world’s population has too little iodine in its diet, and the problem isn’t limited to developing countries: in Europe, iodized salt is still not the norm. Moreover, the health-conscious trend toward reducing salt intake has lowered iodine intake as well; so has the gourmet penchant for natural sea salt, which does not contain iodine. Within the United States, African Americans suffer the nation’s highest level of iodine deficiency. According to the government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data for 2005–2008, African Americans’ urinary iodine reading of 137 µg/L is lower than that of Mexican Americans at 174 µg/L and of non-Hispanic whites at 168 µg/L. No separate data are given for Native Americans or other ethnic groups.
Today, nearly a century after iodine’s effects on the brain were first discovered, a wealth of contemporary studies warns of many other environmental factors that, like iodine, dramatically affect intelligence and IQ. These range from lead, which recently made national headlines for contaminating the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, to other poisonous metals such as arsenic and mercury, which often accompany lead and commonly poison reservation lands.
Unsurprisingly, the deleterious effects of chemicals in the environment have been most widely reported when they impact white, relatively affluent communities. In the 1980s, for instance, headlines frequently updated us on the struggles of communities like Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, where a seventy-acre landfill spewed pollution that threatened the health of hundreds.
But we never read about Anniston.
I first heard about Anniston, Alabama, during a chance encounter in the heart of New York City. In 2005, I spent most weekdays at the New York Public Library’s iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at the corner of Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue. One March day, I had tired of writing and emerged from the library around three o’clock, in plenty of time to beat the rush-hour traffic back to my home in Spanish Harlem. As I joined the queue for the bus, I stole a peek at my BlackBerry, where sad news awaited: Johnnie Cochran had died.
Almost immediately, a seventyish African American man joined the line behind me. He was thin, looked a bit frail, and wore an immaculate but slightly faded trench coat, a black fedora, and an expression of care and pain. As the bus arrived, he slowly mounted the steps behind me, sighing lightly. As I twisted around to make sure he was all right, he looked up and asked, “You heard about Johnnie Cochran?”
“Yes,” I said as gently as I could. “It’s a great loss.” The man shook his head sadly and continued his ascent. Another man murmured something to him, and though I didn’t catch the words, I understood the tone. This sadness was felt by many people, some of whom didn’t care a fig about the exoneration Cochran had won for O. J. Simpson in 1995. African American men are so often demonized that it is hard to realize the extent to which they bear the brunt of bias in the workplace and in the health and justice systems, with few protectors. For many, Cochran had been a powerful legal champion who symbolized the possibility of long-delayed justice. But now he was gone.
As we took our seats, the man in the trench coat spoke again, more audibly, with an air of satisfaction. “You know, I’m from Anniston. Anniston, Alabama. They thought they could poison our homes and children, but Johnnie Cochran made them stop. He made them stop, and he made them pay.” The other nodded glumly, then they fell again into silence.
I’d all but forgotten his words when I heard the name again, this time at Cochran’s funeral. In his eulogy, trial lawyer Theodore V. Wells capped a list of Cochran’s triumphs for the downtrodden with “And today they’ve got that health center down in Anniston because of Johnnie Cochran.”
I had to know more, and a little research quickly revealed that right after securing O. J. Simpson’s not-guilty verdict Cochran had been approached by Anniston activist David Baker, executive director of the activist group Community Against Pollution in Anniston. Baker had explained that sickness was rampant among Anniston’s inhabitants, thanks to extensive pollution caused by the Monsanto Company, the Olin Corporation, and even the U.S. Army. Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department had utterly failed to pursue the offenders, leaving the citizens of Anniston—including children—to suffer with brain damage, lowered intelligence, and behavioral problems. Cochran agreed to help them obtain compensation for their losses.
He kept his word, organized a class-action suit, and procured for the victims the largest settlement ever won in the United States, including $50 million for a health clinic to address their rampant cancer, liver disease, and cognition problems such as memory loss.
As I read transcripts related to the suit, I was struck by Cochran’s exclamation, “There is always some study, and they’ll study it to death, then thirty years later, you find out it’s bad for you.… We know it’s bad for us right now!”8
In language that everyone can understand, Cochran was expressing an important precept that we have long shunned in the United States, called the precautionary principle.
Approximately 60,000 industrial chemicals commonly used in the United States have never been tested for their effects on humans. In our country, safety tests are undertaken only when a chemical is suspected to be harmful. But even then, definitive findings are elusive, and it sometimes takes years or even decades of expensive research for them to emerge. Meanwhile, the standard of proof demanded by the industries that use and disseminate these chemicals is sometimes so high that masses of people suffer their effects in the time it takes to sufficiently prove their harmfulness. In the case of lead alone, the Environmental Defense Fund has noted that thousands of children were poisoned (at a cost of $50 billion to the nation) while we awaited “sufficient” proof to take action.9
As Cochran suggested, there is a better way. The European Union, for instance, requires human safety tests before any new industrial chemical is unleashed into the ground, atmosphere, and neighboring communities. It subscribes to the precautionary principle. In plain English, it is “better safe than sorry.”
Because we have ignored this precept, lead poisoning has cost our country a staggering $50 billion. But it also has cost our nation something far more precious: 23 million lost IQ points every year.10 And this frightful cost is the subject of this book, which discusses a specific, devastating, and all but unregarded injury that environmental poisoning inflicts on communities of color—the loss of intelligence and the malignant flowering of behavioral problems that destroy lives and human potential as effectively as cancer and lung disease but with far fewer alarms raised. IQ tests measure this loss of cognition, imperfectly to be sure, but in a useful manner.
The catalog of industrial chemicals known to erode intelligence is extraordinarily long, and many others are suspected of changing how well we think. In the chapters of this book, I reveal them. I delve into the deleterious effects of exposure to the witches’ brew of chemicals—including PCBs, BPA, phthalates, volatile hydrocarbons, and more—that afflict adults, children, and the unborn within the nation’s communities of color. I will discuss the cognitive costs of brain-hobbling microbes and, of course, exposure to heavy metals such as mercury and lead, which is blighting lives in the ongoing Flint water crisis.
Other common intelligence-lowering exposures include DDT and other pesticides that poison the soil, fish, and gardens of Triana, Alabama; the arsenic that turned neighboring Anniston into a postapocalyptic wasteland; the radioactivity spilling from Naná’áztiin uranium mines in New Mexico; the PCBs of Afton, North Carolina; and even the air pollution of Spanish Harlem.11 These are just a few of the two hundred types of chemical exposure that have been shown to reduce intelligence and brain function by the work of scientists such as Philip Landrigan, Bruce Lamphear, and Philippe Grandjean, who dubs such intelligence-eroding chemicals “brain drainers.”12
Medical journals offer evidence that many of the 140,000 untested industrial chemicals in worldwide use impede intelligence. As we will see, these chemicals are far more likely to find their way into African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities—affecting their water, land, and even schools—than into white communities. “Fence line” communities that abut toxin-belching industries, secret or open toxic dump sites, Superfund waste sites, and emission-belching diesel plants are preferentially located in communities of color, both poor and middle class. Robert Bullard, founder of the EPA Office of Environmental Equity, points out that the Moton School in New Orleans, for example, is built on top of a landfill, which leaches dangerous chemicals into the school’s water supply, and similar hazards are rife in the nation’s other ethnic communities: “In South Camden, N.J., schools and playgrounds are located on the waterfront alongside heavy industries of many kinds. Almost two-thirds of the children in that neighborhood have asthma. In West Harlem, the North River Water Treatment Plant covers eight blocks near a school. On the South Side of Chicago, it’s the same kind of thing.”13
The very young brain is not just that of a miniature adult. Fetal and infant brains are exquisitely sensitive to environmental poisons, especially ill-timed ones. This means that dismissing a tiny exposure as “harmless” because it is the equivalent of a drop of poison in 118 bathtubs full of water is naive. Such a vanishingly small dose is indeed enough to trigger lifelong disability in a fetus or infant, and in Chapter 4, I’ll explain why.
Pathogens diminish intelligence, too, either by hampering the proper development of the brain or by directly assaulting the adult nervous system, or both. In Chapter 5, I’ll show how and why these pathogens, from HIV to trichomoniasis, also preferentially afflict communities of color.
In short, African Americans and other marginalized Americans of color are preferentially affected by chemicals known or strongly suspected to lower intelligence because they are far more likely to live in “sacrifice zones”—communities assaulted by environmental poisons and hazards. Addressing this chemical Armageddon will go a long way toward eliminating the “racial” IQ gap—without changing anyone’s genetics. There are solutions we can work toward as individuals, communities, and as a nation, and I will note these as well.
It is important to realize that this book documents and discusses the greatly disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on racial minority groups, though it is not a burden borne solely by them. The recent finding that 90 percent of all Americans harbor pesticides or their byproducts in their bodies speaks to the universality of U.S. environmental exposures. But the reality is that race greatly exacerbates exposure and damages health—including both intellectual and mental health—in a dramatic manner. The intensity, breadth, duration, and harms of such exposures are greatly magnified in communities of color, although the news media and even scientific discourse have sometimes veiled this fact.
There are a few topics that I address in lesser depth than I originally expected to either because they go beyond the book’s purview or because insufficient data limits an extensive discussion. Poverty, for example, is a potent thief of health and intellect, whether found alone or coupled with pollution. But although poverty likely potentiates disproportionate exposure to toxic environments, teasing out its influence independent of poisonous exposures requires research that has yet to be concluded. So instead of discussing its independent impact at length, I’ve pursued the most meaningful evidence-based discussion in this book’s context: the relative effects of poverty and race in determining who is exposed to brain-eroding substances and agents.14
This Introduction and various later chapters address the cognitive harms of environmental agents on “poor whites” to the extent possible based on the available data. However, my ability to do so at length has been limited by the fact that publications on this group tend to focus on detrimental physical effects rather than cognitive ones. I was similarly disappointed by the dearth of data on farmworkers’ exposures, even by the government agencies responsible for protecting their health. The Latino laborers and, on the east coast, African American migrant workers suffer greater proximate exposure than do most other Americans, but this cannot be quantified and analyzed without sufficient data.
Although this book discusses the effects of biological and psychological stress and cognition, it does not devote a lot of space to stress as an independent factor in cognition, which lies beyond the purview of a volume on poisoning wrought by the physical environment. Chapter 7, however, does explore recent research on the direct stress-mediating effects of the natural environment on mental health and cognition.
A Terrible Thing to Waste explains that establishing convincing proof, which is often presented as a purely scientific question, is very often an economic and political strategy deployed by industry and/or government to evade responsibility. Achieving scientific certitude is difficult given the plethora of variables and our often insufficient command of causal interrelationships.
But if protecting lives and health is what motivates us, perfect certitude may not be the gold standard, and we will not blindly dismiss strong evidence of untested chemicals as “mere correlation.” When many studies of risk factors in the United States and abroad point to the same chemical culprits, this lends power to correlations and should be taken into account when deciding whether to approve their use.
If environmental poisoning is an important factor driving the IQ gap and what most scientists think it represents—some damping of intellectual performance—the news is not all bad. At the very least, this means that the gap can in fact be closed.
Nearly a hundred years ago, we learned that iodine supplementation can enhance IQ, yet we have failed to implement our knowledge, and so it remains the largest source of mental retardation. We cannot afford to make this mistake with environmental pollution. We can end human exposure to these poisons, and we must do so—for the sake of people of color, and for the sake of our nation, because we cannot afford to throw genius away. We must give the political polemics a rest and turn our energy from debating racialized genetic slander to applying what we know in order to level the playing field. We must topple the barriers to optimal intelligence for all Americans.
For more than a century, we’ve been assured that nothing can be done to restore the intelligence of groups who manifest evidence—such as lower IQ scores—that they are unprepared to compete in our fast-paced Western world, where the mastery of specialized skills such as reading and mathematical analysis has come to determine who will be a success and who will be resented as a burden on society.
But something can be done. Intervention is not futile. Once we recognize the large extent to which lower cognition is laid to addressable medical factors, it is easy to see that IQ loss can be corrected by reducing exposure to environmental toxins, and that our nation would reap huge rewards for doing so. Intelligence is a product of environment and experience that is forged, not inherited; it is malleable, not fixed.
By eliminating pervasive lead, mercury, hydrocarbons, industrial chemicals, prenatal exposures to alcohols, and even exotic pathogens like “red tide” algae poisonings, worm infestation, and trichinosis, we can save the assailed brains of untold people of color. As a bonus, by using techniques ranging from heavy metal and toxin abatement to educational enrichment to laws against industrial pollutants, we’ll increase the health of our nation as a whole, and likely also help address the dangerous effects of dire poverty.
U.S. government action will also be necessary. A federal mandate could remedy the disproportionate racial exposures that hobble cognition. Closing or updating the last four mercury-based chlor-alkali factories in America, for instance, would save an estimated $24 million in economic productivity that is currently lost due to the human effects of mercury pollution.15
Unfortunately, the Trump EPA is moving in the opposite direction. In the waning days of 2018, it took aim at the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which under the Obama administration had funded the “$18 billion clean-up of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.” After a required sixty-day comment period, the EPA seeks to rescind the act, which it deems not “necessary,” although it and similar efforts have reduced mercury from coal-fired plants by a heartening 85 percent over a decade.16
The National Debt
Somehow the misperception has arisen that lowered IQ in ethnic enclaves affects only the people who live in them. However, as developmental toxicologist Bruce Lanphear has shown, a small five-point decrement in collective IQ not only drags down the average intellect of a nation, it slashes in half the number of people who fall into the “gifted” category while swelling the population of the mentally retarded or intellectually disabled by an additional 3.4 million.17 The IQ gap’s persistence in the United States is part of the reason our intellectual rankings lag behind other Western societies with fewer resources. We rank on par with countries like Estonia and Poland, while top scores go to Japan, Australia, and Scandinavian countries.
Some question how critical IQ is. We’ve long known that IQ measurements, in the United States and around the world, are dramatically biased. We also know that it is not possible to administer the test in a manner that gives meaningful comparisons across a wide variety of cultures. Beyond this, the meaning of “intelligence” varies from culture to culture, it is multifactorial, and IQ tests provide an admittedly limited and biased measure of achievement, not the oft-touted innate ability.
In the context of this book, which focuses on the United States, it is exactly this testing of achievement that imparts some meaning to IQ tests. Christopher Eppig, Ph.D., director of programming for the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, muses, “In the United States, the ability to use technology, to read and to use numbers is important, and IQ tests measure these well. In other, less technological societies, lower IQ scores may reflect the fact that reading and calculation are less important and less frequently practiced.”
“I don’t know how predictive IQ is of your success as a good hunter-gatherer or farmer,” notes Brink Lindsey, author of Human Capitalism: How Economic Growth Has Made Us Smarter—and More Unequal. “But it predicts whether you’ll be a good office worker.”18
Our nation has relatively few job openings for farmers. In today’s technological society, the species of intelligence measured by IQ is what’s deemed most germane to success.
Although IQ scores are not a consistently accurate measure of intelligence, IQ is too important to ignore or to wish away. For Americans, IQ, usually measured by the Stanford-Binet and Wechsler scales, although there are many variants, has proven a predictor of success in school, social settings, work achievement, and lifetime earnings, while emotional intelligence scores, for instance, are far less meaningfully linked to success.19 The median hourly wage of workers scoring on the highest level in related literacy tests, for example, is 60 percent higher than that of workers scoring at the lowest level. Those with low literacy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed.
It’s true that the association between IQ and academic and material success is less strong for marginalized minority-group members because racial bias strongly drives success and failure as well. White men with high school educations earn more than black men who graduate from college, for example. But for minority-group members, who are more likely than other Americans to be poor and underemployed, lower levels of achievement or income mask an especially dire situation.
- "Deeply researched, well written and timelier than ever, A Terrible Thing to Waste will necessarily transform public and scientific debates over urban decay, environmental policy and reported racial differences in IQ...Eye-opening."—Amy Brady, Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)
- "It's amazing how far you can get if you just study the data. And have a keen analytical mind. And are a gifted reporter. With a sense of social justice. By which I mean, if you are Harriet Washington. She methodically indicts environmental racism and its catastrophic effects, particularly on the cognitive abilities of America's children, a reminder that what we're told is immutable -- our social conditions, our 'intelligence' -- is nothing of the kind. The news she brings is grim, but she leaves the reader feeling not paralyzed by despair but determined to act."—Randy Cohen, host of Person Place Thing and original author of New York Times Magazine's The Ethicist column
- "A Terrible Thing to Waste is a powerful and indispensable book for anyone who cares about a just and healthy future for all Americans. Harriet Washington asks the critical questions that get at the heart of racism and inequality in health, income, social welfare and power in 21st century America."—Gerald Markowitz, author of Lead Wars and Distinguished Professor, John Jay College, CUNY
- "In her groundbreaking new book, A Terrible Thing to Waste, award-winning science writer and bioethicist Harriet Washington explores how environmental racism damages young minds, particularly the minds of impoverished African American children who are exposed inordinately to toxins and pathogens in marginalized communities. She writes lucidly of how pollutants such as heavy metals and neurotoxins injure developing brains and recounts vividly case after case of the devastating cost to human brains and bodies. As she demolishes racist notions of inherited intelligence, she describes the medical consequences of horrific environmental catastrophes that have largely been forgotten or overlooked. Revelatory and compelling, Harriet Washington's A Terrible Thing to Waste is the Silent Spring for the 21st century."—Robin Lindley, JD, Features Editor, History News Network
"An unflinching look at environmental racism in black and brown communities."
—Angela Helm, The Root
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little Brown Spark