"But I Know It's True": Environmental Risk Assessment, Justice, and Anthropology

By Checker, Melissa | Human Organization, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

"But I Know It's True": Environmental Risk Assessment, Justice, and Anthropology


Checker, Melissa, Human Organization


Few social issues depend as heavily on scientific information as environmental problems. Yet activists, governmental officials, corporate entities, and even scientists agree that much of the science behind environmental risk assessments is controversial and uncertain. Using a low-income African-American neighborhood as a primary case example, this paper illustrates in concrete terms how environmental risk assessments can exclude the experiences of the poor and people of color. Further, race and class experiences intensify a community's susceptibility to, and perceptions of, risk. These experiences and perceptions underpin the ways that communities contest scientific biases in everyday practice. After discussing alternative approaches to contemporary risk assessment that combine ethnographic research with other kinds of scientific expertise, I conclude by offering a four-fold model for resolving some of the problems raised by this essay. This model draws upon multiple kinds of knowledge bases and includes research, advocacy, policy recommendations, and theoretical innovation.

Key words: environmental justice, science and culture, racism, United States

In September 1993, over 200 residents living in the Hyde Park area1 of Augusta, Georgia gathered in the Jenkins Elementary School cafeteria. Residents had come together that night to attend a meeting with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The meeting's purpose was to announce the results of a $ 1.2 million EPA study of the area's air, groundwater, and soil. Data from this study had provided the basis for a health consultation, compiled by the Agency for Toxic Disease Registry (ATSDR), the results of which were also to be discussed that evening. The health consultation was of primary concern to meeting attendants, as it would determine whether and to what degree their health was at risk from environmental contaminants. Although most of the people living in the area were homeowners, they could not afford to move unless they sold their homes for a competitive price. Rumors of contamination and the area's general economic and social decline (Hyde Park was especially known to be a drug-dealing hub) made selling homes extremely difficult. The results of the ATSDR's risk assessment would determine whether or not residents would find assistance-either from the U.S. government or through legal action-to move out of a neighborhood that they firmly believed was contaminated by the surrounding industries.2

The EPA's Field Investigation divided the Hyde Park area into five neighborhoods. Investigators found high levels of arsenic, chromium, and dioxin in the surface soils and groundwater of two of those. In all five neighborhoods, they found significant levels of PCBs and lead. However, the ATSDR announced that night that these chemicals did not constitute a significant threat to residents' health unless they "inadvertently ingested it on a daily basis for many years" (Health Consultation Final Release 1994).3 Residents received this news in a fury. At one point in the meeting, one man presented the EPA's division director with a four-gallon bucket of sludge he had just taken from the ditch in his backyard. Offering the EPA official the sludge, the man asked him to smell it and then say whether he would want to live anywhere close to it. The crowd in the packed cafeteria shouted, "Answer, answer," and the official replied, "No." Over the next few minutes, tensions continued to escalate until one man threw a chair onto the Jenkins stage, marking the culmination of three year's worth of mounting frustrations, tensions, and fear.

When they tell this story, Hyde Park residents shake their heads and chuckle. They argue for a little while over who threw the chair. Yet, eight years later, they still puzzle over why the EPA and its sister agency, the ATSDR, are unable to correlate unusually high levels of contaminants with high local rates of certain illnesses.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

"But I Know It's True": Environmental Risk Assessment, Justice, and Anthropology
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.