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Last month, a Delta Airlines jet experienced engine trouble shortly after takeoff from LAX and upon return to the airport dumped about 15,000 gallons of jet fuel over a considerable swath of Southeast Los Angeles. While no one was seriously injured during the incident, some residents were outraged. They called the dump the latest in an ongoing crisis in environmental injustice that regularly affects some of the poorest communities not only in Los Angeles County, but also across the nation.

Since then, Delta has been sued by teachers whose students happened to be outside and were witness to the fuel dump. Parents and some county officials allege negligence on the part of the pilot for ejecting fuel over a populated area—and Delta as a whole for allowing the plane to take off.

Children showered with jet fuel

“This would have gotten a more serious response if it happened to a wealthier community,” said Nadine Escobar, the mother of a student at Park Avenue Elementary School in Cudahy. “Delta is trying to downplay this, but we don’t know what the long-term effects on the children and the rest of us will be.” Approximately 60 children and teachers, who were exposed to the smelly vapor, were examined for minor skin and lung irritations and told to “wash with soap and water.”

While the county Fire Department told residents that it did not detect chemicals when they inspected the affected schools (the majority of the fuel had evaporated before it made contact with people and the environment), significant controversy did arise resulting in condemnation from local and national politicians. The South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a notice of violation to Delta Airlines.

The federal Health and Human Services Department admits that not much is known about the health effects of exposure to kerosene-type jet fuel. Prior studies of military personnel—such as those at nearby Edwards Air Force Base—have suggested that it can affect the nervous system, but that research involved people who work around jet fuel all the time.

Unknown toxins lead to health problems

Jet fuel has been determined to be a highly toxic immunomodulator. That fancy word means that exposure to the substance—even a one-time occurrence as in Cudahy—can be particularly acute for the victim. The problems caused by this toxin are mediated by the immune system itself, specifically through the action of a group of white blood cells called “mast cells.” These cells carry microscopic packets of histamine, the chemical that causes burning, irritation and inflammation associated with allergies. Because the children were on the school yard, exposure to ultraviolet rays of the sun draws mast cells out of the bloodstream and into the skin.

As well, jet fuel can find its way into the lungs and can coat the alveoli (the sacs that collect oxygen). When coated with something as irrigating and certainly toxic as kerosene, it is harder for the alveoli to contract as the lungs push air out to remove carbon dioxide. While the children only experienced a brief exposure to the toxin, U.S. Air Force studies have found that a one-hour exposure to jet fuel can result in destruction of bone marrow a mere four hours later.

Aliso Canyon gas leak

Antelope Valley residents have for the past few years closely followed the after-effects of the Aliso Canyon gas leak at nearby Porter Ranch. Southern California Gas Co. pleaded no contest in September 2016 to a misdemeanor count of failing to immediately report the leak which continued unabated for about five months. As recent as last week, a Superior Court judge heard arguments from attorneys representing Porter Ranch residents affected by the incident who are seeking financial restitution from SoCalGas because of its delay in reporting the leak to state regulators.

To date, many residents continue to report respiratory distress, nausea and damage to the exteriors and interiors of their residences, which for months were saturated with harmful gas deposits. SoCalGas insists that there is no basis for restitution to residents based solely on the reporting delay.

“People are still sick, and their homes are still contaminated,” said R. Rex Parris, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Whether you’ve been showered with jet fuel, or your neighborhood has been inundated with natural gas fumes, the issue of environmental justice is a growing concern across the nation.

North Carolina’s Warren County is considered by many to be the birthplace of this cause. In the early 1980s, this low-income community, populated mainly by African-Africans, fought against a proposed landfill after tons of polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, were dumped along more than 240 miles of the state’s roads.

People of color affected most

The federal government had designated the area as a Superfund Site. When clean up began, the state chose Warren County as the dump site for about 60,000 tons of soil contaminated by the PCBs. When the dump site opened in 1982, it was immediately met with demonstrations of civil disobedience and protests that helped to catalyze a national movement.

The same thing occurred years later in Uniontown, Ala., another predominantly Black town. This area was selected as a landfill for dumping an estimated three million tons of coal ash spilled from a retention pond in Kingston, Tenn. Since then, the issue of environmental justice has become a flashpoint of controversy.

“Non-Hispanic Blacks in the United States suffer worse air quality across multiple metrics, geographic scales, and multiple pollution metrics,” according Dr.. Marie Lyn Miranda, an adjunct professor with Duke University’s School of the Environment. “Hispanics also suffer worse air quality with respect to particulate matter, but not necessarily so for ozone. It also appears that environmental justice concerns are more prominent along race/ethnicity lines, rather than measures of poverty.”

Dangers of coal-fired plants

A Duke study found that persons of color are more likely to live in areas with higher amounts of air pollution, rather than poor people as a whole. Take super-dirty coal-fired plants for instance. Of the roughly two million people living within three miles of a super-polluted coal plant, about 76 percent are minorities. (average per capita income for these residents is approximately $14,626).

Black children are more likely to die from asthma-related causes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at this issue in 2013 and revealed that—taking into account their inner-city location—percentages of Black children who have been diagnosed with asthma and still have asthma are 21 percent and 16 percent respectively. “Today in the United States, low-income households and people of color are disproportionately affected by indoor and outdoor air pollution,” according to the CDC study.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases conducted an “Inner-City Asthma Study” in 2012. Over two years, researchers regularly monitored children’s asthma symptoms, breathing function, and school absences and obtained daily outdoor pollution measurements from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Aerometric Informational Retrieval system. Results revealed that poor children-specifically those of color-had significantly decreased lung function following exposure to higher concentrations of sulfur dioxide, airborne fine particles, and nitrogen dioxide. Because nitrogen dioxide is derived mainly from motor vehicle exhaust (i.e. from heavily used transportation corridors), the data suggests heavily that vehicle emissions may be causing adverse respiratory health effects in these urban children who have asthma.

Transit corridors and asthma

Public transit is used at a higher rate by more people of color and low-income communities than Whites. The EPA has reported that while there are many environmental and economic benefits to taking buses and trains, recent urban policies around the country have made health variables more unstable and more uncertain for persons who depend on public transport to get around. Also, many public transit systems still use diesel vehicles, which emit carbon particulate matter and nitrogen oxides that develop into smog and contribute to asthma and other health problems.

Numerous government-sponsored and private academic reports have concluded that communities of color continue to suffer from air, water and hazardous waste pollution. These come from industrial sites as well as transportation corridors. These neighborhoods also assume a disproportionately large part of the solid and liquid waste treatment facilities and landfills which serve the larger geographic area.

Why are poor communities so affected by pollution? One answer is that with the mass exodus of industry from many American inner-cities, these former producers of pollution shut down long ago only to leave the remnants of carcinogenic materials. While unused sites in more prosperous communities are generally cleaned up quickly and redeveloped, many toxic sites in poor communities are simply abandoned—and left to continue contaminating the surrounding area for decades.