One of the major setbacks to advancing positive environmental change remains the inability of dispossessed people to gain the ears of the nation’s policymakers. For decades, the cadence of marginalized community members championing grassroots protests against eroding infrastructures, environmental injustice, climate gentrification, and air pollution, have gone largely ignored. Many policy shifts that have been made came as a direct result of public pressure and have not exacted the level of change necessary to restore failed systems or resolve potential hazards.

Still, the fight continues. And with the invigorated passions of the world’s youth, strategies for restoration and resolution show signs of success. In one such case, British coroner Philip Barlow contributed poor air quality from vehicle emissions as a “material contribution” to the death of a 9-year-old Black girl, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. The landmark ruling makes the first noted connection between air pollution and acute respiratory failure. It also sets the stage, globally, for tougher laws against poor air quality.

Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, 9, died from lung failure resulting from her living in proximity to a major thoroughfare.

“Today’s verdict sets the precedent for a seismic shift in the pace and extent to which the government, local authorities and clinicians must now work together to tackle the country’s air pollution crisis,” said The British Lung Foundation and Asthma UK co-chair Sarah Woolnough.

Ella’s death, which resulted from years of rapidly decreasing lung function, also marked the first time a global spotlight appeared on the impact of poor air quality on children. In the U.S., similar attention focused on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought about after toxic levels of lead were found in the city’s piping system.

Exposure to lead-tainted water can cause long-term health issues and according to Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, those effects may not appear for several years after exposure to lead. Lead exposure lowers IQ levels, creates cognitive and behavioral issues for children, and has been linked to infertility. Lead exposure is difficult to treat because it is an irreversible neurotoxin.

“It’s known as a silent pediatric epidemic. It’s something that we see years if not decades after exposure to lead. There is no cure. There is no antidote,” Hanna-Attisha said. “However, there is so much that we can do and that we are doing to minimize, to mitigate, to buffer the impact of the exposure. We cannot take it away, but we can do so much to lessen it.”

Seven years after the initial lead water crisis began in Flint, youth activist Mari Copeny, has developed a filtration system to provide access to clean water.

This Informer supplement takes a closer look at issues surrounding environmental pollutants – and more importantly, the efforts to restore and resolve environmental issues in Black communities. We celebrate the life’s work of the late D.C. environmental activist Damu Smith in this edition, while also encouraging the next generation of sustainability warriors who continue the fight.

Read, Learn, Grow.

Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian and journalist who serves as the Informer's Special Editions Editor. Dr. Sherman is the author of In Search of Purity: Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes...

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