Environmental Justice for Asians and Pacific Islanders

During the past decade, the environment has come to the forefront as a crucial issue. But many people have ignored the fact that environmental deterioration does not impact everyone equally. There is growing evidence that persons and communities of color throughout the world are the most frequently and severely affected victims. This phenomenon is called "environmental racism."

In the last two decades, a number of studies have been published which document the effects of environmental racism on the African-American, Native American, and Latino communities in the U.S. In contrast, very little has been written regarding issues of environmental justice in the U.S. Asian and Pacific Islander communities. This article reviews the small body of information which exists.

Asians and Pacific Islanders have settled primarily on the West Coast and in large cities such as New York, Boston, Houston, Chicago and Seattle.1 The "Model Minority" myth has blinded society to the realities which Asians and Pacific Islanders face in the U.S. This myth stereotypes most Asians as a successful minority group with high incomes, college degrees, and acceptance as equals in society. But many examples contradict this.

One case of blatant racial discrimination emerged at the signing of the 1991 federal Civil Rights Act. In 1974, 2000 Asian, Pacific Islanders, and Alaskan native workers filed suit against Alaska's Wards Cove Company for discrimination. The suit charged that the workers "were subjected to various forms of racial prejudice by the all-white management of Wards Cove...Most notably, we worked in racially segregated jobs, were housed in racially segregated bunkhouses, and are fed in racially segregated mess halls.”2 When the case reached the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that "the segregation of housing and dining facilities and the stratification of jobs along racial and ethnic lines bear an unsettling resemblance to aspects of a plantation economy." But in a last-minute amendment to the 1991 Civil Rights Act, Alaska's two senators successfully proposed that the still-pending Wards Cove case be exempted from the provisions of the new bill. The law now specifically excludes these 2,000 Asian Pacific and Alaska native cannery workers from Civil Rights Act protection and allows Wards Cove to operate above the law and continue its discriminatory practices.

Hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islanders are dramatically increasing. Incidents include the brutal murder of Jim Loo, a 24-year old Chinese American from Raleigh, North Carolina. White men, screaming, "gook" and blaming him for the deaths of Americans in Viet Nam, beat him to death in the parking lot of a restaurant in 1989. Hate crimes may have reached a record high in 1991.3 Asians and Pacific Islanders are especially nervous since politicians, auto corporations, and the media are now whipping up anti- Japanese hysteria as a response to U.S. economic hardship.

While many Chinese, Pilipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Koreans, and Laotians are farmworkers, the majority live in cities. They live in overcrowded apartments or public housing in low-rent neighborhoods. In the majority of these neighborhoods, housing was built before 1950, and thus many families are exposed to toxic lead paint. These neighborhoods have heavy automobile traffic that causes pollution and accidents involving pedestrians. Neighborhoods also lack space for open air recreation. Asians have the highest rates of tuberculosis in the U.S. Sadly, their suicide rate also exceeds that of other communities.

Like African-American and Latino families, Asians and Pacific Islanders also live near Superfund4 sites and factories that spew thousands of tons of toxics into the air.5 In 1987, a Laotian family living in Richmond, California discovered that they were being poisoned by toxics. They were part of a Southeast Asian resettlement program administered by the Contra Costa County Public Health Department. An alert public health nurse visited the family and noticed that their home was located next to an abandoned factory designated as a Superfund site. Along the fence which separated the home from the factory, she spotted a hole leading to the family's vegetable garden on the factory side. On the factory wall a sign was posted warning of toxic dangers present in the soil. However, this sign was printed in English.

A blood test indicated that their children had blood lead levels of 25 micrograms per deciliter. In 1987, federal law considered such a level allowable (although it is certainly not desirable). At present, federal law considers 10 micrograms per deciliter the threshold of danger. On the other hand, the blood results for the men in the family showed lead levels of over 50 micrograms per deciliter. They were not only poisoned by the lead at home, but they were also being poisoned at the auto radiator repair shop where they worked.

The Occupational Connection

In 1988, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) studied 83 auto repair workers doing radiator repair or working near such operations. In many instances, their lead exposure was found to be ten times higher than the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) permissible limit.6 The high levels were a result of the lead fumes produced when workers soldered radiators and from the lead dust present when radiators were cleaned.

Dr. Wendell Bruner, Director of Public Health of Contra Costa County, cites the Richmond example as a good reason for investigating the workplace as well as in the neighborhoods. James Robinson7 found that the average Black worker is 37% to 52% more likely to sustain a serious job-related accident or illness than the average white worker. Davis and Rowland8 noted that statistics for Latino, Asian, and Native American workers are incomplete, but the same can probably be said for their experiences as well. All these researchers trace the problem to the fact that workers of color usually have access to only the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs.

Young Hi Shin, director of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates, reports that the rate of occupational illness for electronic assembly workers, predominantly Asian and Latino women, is three times higher than for workers in other manufacturing industries. Incidents of headaches, nosebleeds, vaginal bleeding, and difficulty in breathing are common.

Asian workers make up 53% of the San Francisco Bay Area garment industry. Most are women. Asians (along with Latino and African-American workers) still work in 19th-century sweatshop conditions in many U.S. cities. Many of the conditions are identical to those in New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory of 1911, where a tragic fire killed 146 immigrant women. The present day shops continue to be inadequately ventilated, poorly lit, and overcrowded. Exposure to fiber particles, dyes, formaldehyde, and arsenic used to treat the fabric causes high rates of byssinosis9 and respiratory illness among garment workers. All too often children accompany their parents and spend their days in these hazardous environments, since adequate child care is seldom available.

Asians, especially Pilipinos and Southeast Asians, also work on farms. These workers and their families are exposed to pesticides since they work in and live near fields where these chemicals are sprayed. Many small dry cleaning stores are owned and operated by Asian families. Chemicals used in dry cleaning, such as perchloroethylene10, are known to be especially harmful to children. Children of Asian families often accompany their parents to work in these small shops.

As awareness of the issues surrounding environmental racism increases, so does the need to involve Asians and Pacific Islanders in the development of policy strategies, and educational programs. Asians and Pacific Islanders need to be included in organizations which can effect change. Thorough research also needs to be conducted which includes the active participation of the Asian communities. Outreach into communities should be initiated in a way which is culturally appropriate and which involves Asians and Pacific Islanders in creating safe, healthy environments in both their neighborhoods and their workplaces.


1. "Asians in America 1990 Census," Asian Week (1991).

2. William Wong, "Anti-bias bill hurts Asians," OaWand Tribune (November 20, 1991).

3. Larry Tye, "Hate crimes increase, may hit record in '91," Boston Globe (May 14, 1991).

4. A Superfund site is a contaminated area containing hazardous materials which pose a threat to the public or the environment. The U.S. Congress established Superfund in 1980 for the cleanup of these dangerous sites when the responsible party cannot be located or refuses to pay the costs. The Superfund legislation is known as CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980).

5. A major report by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ found that "race consistently proved to be the most significant among all factors tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents." C. Lee, Toxic Waste and Race (1987).

6. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 40, No. 8 (March 1, 1991).

7. "Racial inequality and the probability of occupation-related injury or illness," Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly/Health and Society, 64(4): 567-590, (1984).

8. 'Davis and Rowland, "Problems faced by minority workers." In Levy, B.S., Wegman, D.H. (eds), Occupational Health, Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1983.

9. Byssinosis is often called "brown lung disease." Symptoms include chest tightness and wheezing. Over a long period of time, the worker ends up continually short of breath and has distended lungs.

10. Perchloroethylene is used as a dry cleaning solvent. It is an irritant to eyes and skin. Other symptoms of exposure include dizziness, lack of coordination, drowsiness, unconsciousness, and death. Recent studies also indicate that perchloroethylene is a suspected carcinogen.

Asian/Pacific Islanders       ?õ¬?       Vol. 3 No. 1      ?õ¬?       Spring 1992