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 Harriet A. Washington’s groundbreaking book, ‘A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind,’ she sheds light on how environmental factors, such as air pollution, toxic metals, and infectious diseases, have detrimental effects on early brain development in children. The book answers crucial questions about why communities of color suffer from behavioral difficulties, learning disabilities, and decreased IQ as a consequence of long-standing exposure to these environmental hazards. Washington exposes a deep-rooted, racially biased history and corporate greed in the United States, with the intention of empowering readers to make a change.

Toxic Threats to Developing Brains

Medical ethicist Harriet A. Washington exposes the devastating effects of air pollution, industrial chemicals, toxic metals, and infections on early childhood brain development. These harmful factors lead to learning disabilities, behavioral issues, and reduced IQ, especially in communities of color. Washington also delves into the history of America’s prejudice and corporate greed. With a new preface on COVID-19, this deeply researched and timely book is a must-read that will challenge scientific discussions on environmental policy, racial disparities in IQ, and urban decay.

IQ and Systemic Racism

In “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” Isabel Wilkerson explains how systemic racism and exposure to industrial chemicals, heavy metals, and pathogens in “sacrifice zones” create a 15-point IQ gap between White and Black Americans. Wilkerson dispels the myth that IQ is solely inherited and unchangeable, highlighting the 15-point increase in IQ after the US government added iodine to salt in 1924 to address nutritional deficiencies. This detailed account highlights the refusal of hereditarians to acknowledge the impact of systemic racism on intelligence and health, affirming race as a social construct rather than a determinant of one’s abilities.

The Dangers of Lead Poisoning

In “The Poisoned City,” author Anna Clark reveals that lead poisoning is a severe issue in Baltimore, with 37,500 mostly African-American children affected between 2003 and 2015. The problem stems from lead emissions and legacy lead pipes in homes and water systems. Not only does lead poisoning cause illness and slow growth in children, but it can also lead to learning disabilities, mental retardation, reproductive problems, anemia, and kidney and heart disease. Shockingly, even low levels of lead are unsafe, costing the US millions of IQ points annually.

Environmental Racism

The book reports on environmental racism, which shows how race plays a more significant role than socioeconomic status in determining where hazardous facilities and waste dumps are located. The author provides examples from Flint, Michigan, and Louisiana, where poor and predominantly Black communities have suffered from environmental pollution. The book highlights that African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately exposed to toxic waste, and their health and economic opportunities are continuously affected. The author also explains that the US safety-tests only a small fraction of industrial chemicals currently in use, exposing citizens to dangerous chemicals like neurotoxins, pesticides, and flame-retardant chemicals. As a result, even small exposures can cause behavioral and intellectual damage. Environmental Racism urges readers to take action to address this issue, knowing that environment quality is a right, not a privilege.

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