An Ardent Call to Arms: On Harriet A. Washington’s “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind”

By Eisa Nefertari UlenNovember 26, 2019

An Ardent Call to Arms: On Harriet A. Washington’s “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind”

A Terrible Thing to Waste by Harriet A. Washington

IN HER 1962 BOOK Silent Spring, Rachel Carson documented the deleterious effects of short-sighted public policy and toxic chemical use on our environment. Vivid, elegant descriptions of wildflowers blooming along the interstate highways prior to widespread DDT use contrasted with a somber desolation we could see with our own eyes to make clear that the world was dying — and we were the murderers. We are all connected, Carson reminded us, and insecticide use would do more than silence the songbirds. This poison would silence us.

Fifty-seven years later, Harriet A. Washington has published A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind. Just as Carson did back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Washington seems to anticipate controversial responses to her book, in which she identifies multinational corporations that produce untested chemicals, bemoans government policies that allow toxins to enter our ecosystem, and pleas for activism among the enablers (people like you and me) who choose not to support fence-line communities animated in their pursuit of environmental justice. Washington focuses on IQ, in a way similar to Carson’s focus on small animals, especially birds. And, just as the loss of certain species of small animals seemed less important before the publication of Carson’s book, a few IQ points might seem insignificant to most Americans now. That shortsightedness will change after they’ve read Washington’s book. This Shearing Fellow has written a fact-based analysis with conclusions that should absolutely animate us all.

In addition, Washington is a research fellow in Medical Ethics at Harvard Medical School, a senior research scholar at the National Center for Bioethics at Tuskegee University, and a visiting scholar at DePaul University College of Law. More than any academic credentials, she is a Black woman in the United States, one whose childhood experiences provided her with deep engagement in the natural world of an idyllic suburbia, as well as great enjoyment of the cosmopolitan excitement of the city. Explicitly positioning herself in the diverse beauty and cultural wealth of the African-American community only strengthens Washington’s call for a clean environment for all Americans.

“We must give the political polemics a rest,” Washington insists as her book takes on the pseudo-science of eugenics. She cuts through the crap that reeks of 400 years of racist attitudes to identify the biological consequences of 400 years of racist practice. Racism, Washington suggests, has achieved such automaticity that not enough people have stopped to wonder if lower IQ and test scores in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities might have nothing to do with race and everything to do with racism. As there is no biological basis for race, this social construct, as well as the social invisibility of Black and Brown people, has permitted an assault of environmental hazards made increasingly worse over generations. This racist assault has had many iterations, including benign neglect in the government enforcement of lead paint abatement in cities like Albany and Baltimore and lead poisoning of water systems in cities like Newark and Flint, as well as industrial waste dumping in communities of color, and Black and Brown babies’ vulnerability to IQ reducing ailments like hookworm in the rural South and asthma in the urbanized North.

Washington identifies heavy metal poisoning, like lead, as an intergenerational health problem. In addition to diminished IQ and increased ADHD, which create intergenerational social problems in communities affected by such poisoning, the effects of lead are cumulative, building in the human body over time, and altering the body’s instructions to develop, live, and reproduce in future generations. According to Washington, lead poisoning

produces epigenetic changes that can reprogram genes, changing their expression in a manner that further heightens the risks of disability and a variety of disorders ranging from heart disease to colorectal cancer triggered by lead-induced DNA exposure. […] And since such reprogrammed genes can be passed from generation to generation, this harms not only the poisoned child but also his own children, an example of the complex interplay between genetics and environmental exposures.

Though many think of lead as a water supply issue concentrated in aging, low-income cities like Newark and Flint, lead exposure from house paint affects nearly thirty percent of African-American homes. Racism enters Black bodies in the form of lead, and in a macabre and surreal occupation, assaults Black communities across generations.

In Baltimore, local statutes required landlords to remove lead-based paint from the homes they rent. Because of the costs of lead paint abatement, researchers like the team at the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) sought cheaper alternatives to full lead abatement despite the fact that, as Washington points out, “[a]s early as 1987 the CDC advocated complete abatement because there is no safe level of lead exposure.”

Instead of helping African-American families by moving their children out of homes containing lead paint, KKI

allowed unwitting children to be exposed to lead in tainted homes, thus using the bodies of the children to evaluate cheaper, partial lead-abatement techniques of unknown efficacy in the old houses with peeling paint. Although they knew that only full abatement would protect these children, scientists decided to explore cheaper ways of reducing the lead threat.

KKI acted in a manner not unlike the US Public Health Service in their administration of the Tuskegee Experiment. Our government allowed infected men to think they were receiving medicine to treat syphilis when, all the while, over four decades, scientists were studying the effect of the disease in their Black bodies. Similarly, families in Baltimore believed the KKI website, which claimed their children would benefit from an “interdisciplinary team of experts in the problems and injuries that affect your child’s brain, and receive personal, compassionate care for your child.” KKI’s affiliation with the prestigious Johns Hopkins University further legitimized the organization and made Black families think their children were receiving special care — not acting as test subjects.

As a Black woman in the United States, I am personally and deeply affected by The Tuskegee Experiment and the Baltimore Lead Cases. Just as lead builds in the human body, alters genes, and acts as an intergenerational poison, stories of the intentional dispossession of Black bodies enter me, influence my perception of the health-care industry, and erode trust in public and private institutions that purport to aid the common good. Stories of lead poisoning are not outliers or blips on the news cycle; they are the weight of racism on communities of color, holding us down by reducing our children’s IQ, and then blaming us for being so low by abandoning us in substandard schools ill-equipped to manage the effects of lead on the human brain.

Washington’s book asks the nation to switch from the dangerous “mantra of ‘personal responsibility’” and instead engage in what Columbia University historian and public health professor David Rosner calls “universalist environmental solutions.” In a scholarly article called “The EXODUS of Public Health,” Rosner and his co-authors advocate for institutional responsibility by “introducing pure water, sewage systems, street cleaning” and other sensible public policy options.

The shift in the public discourse from corporate and government responsibility to personal blame occurred around the start of the Cold War, according to Washington. During that time,

science and medicine became great levelers, allowing public health professionals to ignore social factors — including the racial segregation, poverty, inequality, and poor housing that had been the traditional foci of public health reformers only 30 years before — and explain disease without any of the disruptive implications of a class analysis.

Though Washington focuses on race, she acknowledges that money and class are inextricably bound to the racism in our capitalist country. By the 1970s, Washington says, the shift to personal responsibility and public absolution of corporations “that marketed harmful products such as cigarettes and lead paint” was complete. Common-sense proposals failed to rise to benefit the common good because of the racist practice of blaming the consumer victims of industrial chemical use, instead of blaming the profiteering corporations that produce them. Washington uses as an example a plan for lead paint abatement proposed by the late child psychiatrist and pediatric researcher Herbert L. Needleman. In the 1980s, Needleman proposed full abatement of lead, followed by a Work Projects Administration–style plan for proper sanding, repainting, and removing and repainting of lead-tainted materials by unemployed workers in affected communities. Washington says Congress rejected Needleman’s $10 billion plan, even though a Congressional plan to spend $11.6 billion on new prisons around that same time was approved.

We need a fresh shift, Washington says, away from bemoaning the costs of expensive clean-up and wrangling over public dollars to the “precautionary principle,” which mandates safety testing of industrial chemicals before they enter the market. This precautionary principle is already employed in much of the European Union, where chemicals are tested in laboratories before they are used in people’s homes.

Washington documents the haunting impact of our regressive decision-making on fence-line communities from Anniston, Alabama, a town poisoned by Monsanto, to Harlem, New York, where children breathe the fumes generated by bus depots into their asthmatic lungs, to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation where, because of Trump’s reversal of the Obama decision not to drill beneath the Missouri River, construction of the Dakota Access line renewed and, “even before the pipeline’s completion, Sioux fears materialized as it ruptured, spilling 84 gallons of oil in Tulare, South Dakota, south of the resistance camps.” Six months later, another 200,000 gallons leaked from the Keystone Pipeline.

The planet is on fire: Bill Nye said it, and I believe it. Climate change is an objective fact that almost all Americans, even a slim majority of Republicans, recognize as a threat. Because doomsday blockbusters and looped cable access news stories grip public attention on extreme weather, too few people, even climate change believers, fully grasp the multifarious health consequences of this existential threat. We compost, recycle, drive hybrid SUVs, all in an effort to preempt the next typhoon. All the while, death is coming not in a raging, earth-scorching fire, but in a buzzing, dengue-bearing mosquito. Our capacity to think our way through the increase in leptospirosis cases following a hurricane or flood is compromised by a different kind of fire, a metaphorical, chemical burn instigated by environmental toxins that diminish human IQ.

In her ardent call to arms, Harriet A. Washington examines the microbes that reduce intelligence in floods, hurricanes, and other everyday disasters caused by environmental hazards. Washington excavates the history of environmental racism with a clear eye on the future: “We must also learn from past mistakes, such as the penny-wise and pound-foolish partial abatement of lead, mercury, and other intellect killers, in order to fully invest in our children and our nation’s future.” Washington’s book is a unifier, an effort to make us all realize that, “[d]espite the tensions that have driven our perception of this problem, we will rise or fall together, not as separate ethnic groups.” Therefore, Washington insists that we “must topple the barriers to optimal intelligence for all Americans.”


Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning and is at work on her second novel, a story of an imagined Black Indian family through multiple generations.

LARB Contributor

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is the author of Crystelle Mourning (Atria), a novel described by The Washington Post as “a call for healing in the African American community from generations of hurt and neglect.” A Pulitzer Center grantee, she is the recipient of a Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center Fellowship for Young African American Fiction Writers, a Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship, and a National Association of Black Journalists Award. Her essays exploring African American culture have been widely anthologized, most recently in Who Do You Serve? Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket), which won the Social Justice/Advocacy Award for 2017 from the School Library Journal's In the Margins Book Committee. Eisa has also contributed to,, EssenceParents, The Washington Post, Ms., Health, Ebony, The Huffington Post,, Los Angeles Review of Books,,,,, and Eisa graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and earned a master’s degree from Columbia University. Awarded a Hunter College Presidential Award for Excellence for Teaching, Eisa teaches African and Diasporic literature for the Department of English and the Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies Department. She has also taught fiction writing at Baruch College and literature at The Pratt Institute. A founding member of Ringshout: A Place for Black Literature, she lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn.


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