Tuli Hughes’s first three pregnancies ended in miscarriage. During her fourth pregnancy, she gave birth prematurely to a baby with a fatal birth defect who died a few minutes after being born. On her fifth try, Tuli again gave birth prematurely; the baby weighed about one pound and also died within minutes.
An explanation for this story, reported in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004, may be found in the environmental conditions in Tuli’s neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point, which is home to San Francisco’s main power and sewage treatment plants and the now-closed Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, a Superfund toxic waste site.
Bayview-Hunters Point, a low-income, predominantly African-American community in southeast San Francisco, has one of the highest infant mortality rates in California, comparable to rates in the developing world. Between 1992 and 2001, the area’s infant mortality rate averaged 11.8 per 1,000 births, well above the national average of 6.8 per 1,000 and the average for San Francisco, which has the nation’s lowest infant mortality rate among large cities. Recent studies also show that women in the community suffer from high rates of miscarriages and premature births, as well as breast and cervical cancer.
Low-income women of color like Tuli not only reside disproportionately around chemical dumps, power plants and other polluting facilities; they are also plagued by other socioeconomic handicaps such as lack of quality health care that exacerbate their reproductive health problems. These other handicaps undoubtedly contribute to the elevated reproductive health risks in areas like Bayview-Hunters Point, but they do not fully explain them. Research points to environmental contamination as a major part of the story.
Exposure to even small amounts of toxic chemicals during the early stages of pregnancy can lead to miscarriages and premature births, while prolonged exposure can cause infertility, endometriosis (a condition in which tissue that normally lines the uterus grows in other areas of the body), cervical cancer, and other reproductive complications. Children born to mothers exposed to toxic chemicals are also at greater risk of birth defects, learning disabilities, and other developmental illnesses. The Center for American Progress recently released a paper titled "More Than a Choice" that urges a broader conversation about reproductive health and rights — one that goes beyond the narrow but dominant issue of abortion. As the paper indicates, a key part of this conversation must be providing a safe environment for healthy pregnancies and babies. The debate over abortion, while important, has tended to distract from this and other pressing issues of reproductive justice like access to quality health care and child care to the detriment of women and families across the country. Issues like these have the potential to create common ground even among those who have butted heads in the past. Indeed, a shared concern for healthy babies and families and a healthy environment has helped forge one of the unlikeliest partnerships Washington has seen in years: the religious right and the environmental community.
Conservative evangelical Christians have begun to press for stronger environmental protections to ensure the health of vulnerable communities. Much attention has been given to recent efforts by prominent evangelicals pressing for action on global warming. But some are also taking on mercury pollution as a threat to the "sanctity of life."
Mercury emissions from power plants contaminate coastlines, rivers, and lakes, and "bioaccumulate" in fish. Nearly all fish contain traces of mercury, but fish at or near the top of the food chain contain higher levels of mercury that may harm a fetus or young child’s developing nervous system. Children born to women who eat mercury-contaminated fish are at a higher risk for a number of neurological disorders including mental retardation and learning disabilities.
Because of this risk, the Food and Drug Administration recently recommended that pregnant women and women who may become pregnant avoid eating certain types of fish, including king mackerel, tilefish, and tuna. Last year, the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville released the largest ever biomonitoring study of mercury in the United States, finding that a shocking 20 percent of women of childbearing age contain levels of mercury in their blood that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended limit.
Religious conservatives are starting to take note of this reproductive risk. At an anti-abortion-rights rally last year, evangelical leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Environmental Network actually carried a banner that read "Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn" and distributed fliers that urged Christians to speak out against President Bush’s Orwellian "Clear Skies Initiative."
"Clear Skies" purports to clamp down on mercury emissions and other air pollution, but in fact relaxes existing protections under the Clean Air Act. EPA’s Children’s Health Advisory Committee concluded that the plan "does not sufficiently protect our nation’s children." Congress has failed to pass "Clear Skies" legislation, but the administration is putting in place major elements through regulation.
Other environmental problems must also be better understood and addressed as threats to reproductive health. Superfund toxic waste sites, for example, can poison drinking water, pollute the air, and contaminate the soil, potentially leading to reproductive complications. The community around the infamous Love Canal site, which spurred passage of the Superfund law in 1980, suffered extremely high rates of birth defects and miscarriages, eventually prompting the town’s evacuation.
Alarmingly, Superfund cleanups have plummeted more than 50 percent during the Bush administration as compared to the Clinton administration. Instead of protecting at-risk communities, the administration and Congress have declined to reinstate Superfund’s expired "polluter pays" corporate tax that previously generated $1.5 billion a year, leaving fewer resources available for cleanups.
As sites await cleanup, tens of thousands of women are exposed to chemicals that could cause reproductive complications. Presently, one in four Americans lives within three miles of one of the 1,244 Superfund sites awaiting cleanup, including approximately three to four million children who live with one mile of a site.
The Center for American Progress and the Center for Progressive Reform recently profiled the five most dangerous Superfund sites in each of the 10 most populous states. According to census data, more than 50,000 women of childbearing age (between 15 and 44) live within the census tracts containing these sites. Of these communities, a disproportionate number are, like Bayview-Hunters Point, low income and minority.
Environmental health is vital to the well-being of women, their babies, and their families. With the election of a new Congress, there is now an opportunity to broaden the agenda for reproductive health and rights in a way that captures growing public support across the political spectrum. A good place to start would be passing strong legislation to curb mercury emissions in place of the president’s "Clear Skies" initiative and reinstating the corporate "polluter pays" tax to fund Superfund cleanups. For women like Tuli who want nothing more than a healthy baby, such improvements in environmental quality could make all the difference.