Harriet A. Washington's A Terrible Thing to Waste Injects a Dose of Hard Truth Into the Conversation About Black Lives

Photo: Gannett Co./Little, Brown Spark

Harriet Washington’s 2007 tome, Medical Apartheid, not only outlined the pervasive use of medical experimentation on black Americans throughout history but circumscribed blacks’ credible distrust of the medical establishment. In fact, a large part of why J. Marion Sims’ statue was removed from New York’s Central Park more than a decade later was because of Washington’s meticulous research on the sadistic doctor, the so-called “Father of Gynecology.”

Washington returned this summer with her third book, A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and its Assault on the American Mind (Little, Brown and Company), an unflinching look at environmental racism in black and brown communities, where the foci of toxicity is placed. Some of what Washington, a research fellow in medical ethics at Harvard Medical School, found may surprise you—or not—but either way, the data is sobering, including the fact that although environmental toxicity is often presented as a “socioeconomic” issue, race is the larger predictor.

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During a lecture and conversation at Harlem’s Revolution Books on Thursday, Washington cites a study showing that middle-class African American households with incomes of $50,000-$60,000 live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than those of white households with incomes below $10,000.

This toxicity has profound implications, says Washington, especially as it relates to the argument about African Americans and intelligence. Washington references the longstanding 15 point gap in IQ between African Americans and whites, and why what is often presented as genetic inferiority “can be explained better by exposure to environmental toxins.”

These other facts are just as urgent:

  • African American rates of Alzheimer’s are as much as 100 percent higher than those of whites, and air pollution has been named as a primary suspect.
  • 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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Washington has quite a bit to say about lead poison, and according to research she presents, lead poisoning alone has cost the United States $50 billion—and 23 million IQ points every year. Even a five-point decrement in collective IQ drags down the average intellect of an entire nation, and slashes in half the number of people who fall into the “gifted” category. It also increases the population of intellectually disabled an additional 3.4 million.

“I have to stress, though, Flint and Pittsburgh and Newark don’t have a lead problem,” Washington says. “America has a lead poisoning problem.”

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And a race problem. Washington notes that the cities in lead crises from the news have all been treated the same with “one profound exception.”

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“When there was lead poisoning in Washington, D.C., in some areas of the city it was very quickly eradicated, cleaned up, and investment was made. Rather than having an EPA that dragged its feet and did nothing, we had action. Why is that? Because members of Congress lived there.”

“In this book, I’m addressing environmental toxicity and its effects on the mental state,” Washington explains. “On intelligence, cognition, behavioral problems, even murder rates. The data show consistently when lead rates go up, murder rates go up. When it falls, the murder rates fall a generation later.”

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These social problems long laid at the feet of the black community—violence, behavioral issues, low cognition—have never systematically been studied or examined from an environmental lens. These conversations are often couched in “personal responsibility” and that distasteful notion of “poverty” which is often defined as a personal failing. But like everything else, at the core of the issue lay white supremacy, which is why researchers and writers like Washington are so necessary.

Washington also points out that toxins don’t always have to be pushed by a big factory or through corroding pipes. Washington gives the example of “malt liquor” and how for generations it has been advertised heavily in black communities, from Colt 45 to St. Ides and Four Loko. The effects of this highly alcoholic beverage on women’s bodies and their fetuses is also profound; Washington cites the late psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Carl Bell, who has shown the correlation between fetal alcohol poisoning and rates of ADHD in black communities, many which have a liquor store on every corner.

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Washington also talks about how pathogens—bacteria, viruses, microbes—are “also very powerful environmental contaminants that have very powerful effects on cognition and brain development and the way that we think.”

“Even scientists inadequately view pathogens,” Washington says. “I think we have been very slow to recognize this fact, but it’s a very important factor here.” In her lecture, Washington demonstrates that pathogens have become even more pervasive in the last few decades, due in part to climate change. She also sounds the alarm on the fact that there’s little research on how these toxins interact with one another (what she calls “synergy”) and those possible effects.

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Yet, before we all give up—because how can one protect themselves from something they cannot see or really feel, and that is everywhere—Washington does offer some solutions. In the third part of the book, she outlines things that everyday folk can do to mitigate their and their children’s risks (i.e., “List of Known Chemical Brain Drainers”), as well as how we as a community can unite with others “already on the ground doing the work” to preserve our precious brainpower.

But be clear: this is happening to us.

“Toxicity is a manufactured racial disparity. And that’s what the data shows,” says Washington.“I’m not talking about motivations; motivations are a bit of a thicket. I can’t tell what’s in somebody else’s mind, but I do know the foreseeable effects. And when you see consistent patterns of toxic waste in fenceline communities located consistently in heavily African American communities, the facts will show you [the truth]; it’s not a matter of speculation.”

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This book is required reading. What comes down next is up to us.

G/O Media is participating in Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate crisis. You can find out more details on the effort and other participants here.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.