A Terrible Thing to Waste | Harriet A. Washington

Summary of: A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind
By: Harriet A. Washington


In ‘A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind,’ Harriet A. Washington exposes the devastating impact of environmental toxins on communities of color, emphasizing the adverse effects on children’s cognitive development. This well-researched book sheds light on the long-standing intellectual toll caused by air pollution, untested industrial chemicals, toxic metals, and infectious diseases. Washington not only demonstrates how these factors have resulted in behavioral problems, academic disabilities, and decreased IQ scores, but also unravels the US’s history of bias and corporate greed. Understanding the intricacies of environmental racism asserted in this book will allow readers to grasp the enormity of its effect and inspire action for change.

Toxic Threats to Developing Brains

Harriet A. Washington’s book explores the impact of air pollution, industrial chemicals, toxic metals, and infectious diseases on children’s brain development. She explains how exposure to these toxins leads to long-term cognitive impairments like behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and reduced IQ levels in communities of color. Washington highlights the history of bias and corporate greed in the United States that perpetuates environmental racism. The updated edition features a new preface discussing the risks associated with COVID-19. This deeply researched and timely book exposes the catastrophic effects of environmental racism and calls for changes in environmental policy.

IQ and Race

In her book, Washington challenges the idea that intelligence is determined by genetics and argues that systemic racism plays a role in the IQ gap between white and Black Americans. She provides evidence that when the government added iodine to salt to cure nutritional deficiencies, overall IQ increased by 15 points. Washington also highlights the impact of environmental factors, such as exposure to industrial chemicals in “sacrifice zones,” that can lower IQ. She contends that race is a social construct and that medical outcomes are influenced by societal perceptions. Overall, Washington rejects the hereditarian view and calls attention to the impact of systemic racism.

Lead Poisoning: An Invisible Threat

Lead poisoning affects mostly African-American children in Baltimore, and is caused by emissions, legacy pipes in homes and water systems. The consequences include slow growth, lower IQ, mental retardation, anemia, and even heart and kidney problems. There is no safe level of lead exposure, and the harmful effects cost the US 23 million IQ points every year.

Race and Hazardous Facilities

Race is a more significant factor in determining the location of hazardous waste sites than socioeconomic status, according to a report by the author. Washington highlights how minority communities near chemical plants are subjected to significantly higher rates of pollution. For instance, the number of African Americans living in such areas is 75% higher than the US average. The author offers Flint, Michigan, as an example, where predominantly African American communities were exposed to pollutants from a polluted river following a decision by state authorities. Additionally, Louisiana dumps 64% of its industrial waste in predominantly black communities known as “Cancer Alley”. Washington also reveals that the US only safety-tests a small portion of the 85,000 industrial chemicals used in the country, leaving communities at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals. Small doses of these toxic chemicals can cause significant intellectual and behavioral harm, she argues.

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