The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast

Episode 42: Fighting to Breathe. A Conversation with Nicole Fabricant, Ph.D.

March 04, 2024 The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast / Nicole Fabricant, Ph.D. Episode 42
The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast
Episode 42: Fighting to Breathe. A Conversation with Nicole Fabricant, Ph.D.
The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast
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Show Notes Transcript

Episode 42 of The Chemical Sensitivity Podcast is available now!
https://www.chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org/
 
It’s called "Fighting to Breathe."
 
It features a conversation with Nicole Fabricant, Ph.D.

Nicole is a professor of Anthropology and director of Latin American and Latino/a Studies at Towson University in Maryland on the east coast of the U.S. Her research focuses on issues of environmental toxicity and community activism. She is author of the 2022 book, “Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity, and The Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore.”

You will hear Nicole talk about the book and:

 ·      How she has worked with youth in South Baltimore who have used creative forms of activism to push back against serious chemical pollution that impacts their health. 

 ·      How many people in South Baltimore suffer from asthma and likely undiagnosed MCS. 

 ·      How it is important for everyone, not just people whose health is clearly affected by chemicals, to act. 

Thank you for listening!
 
 Please share your feedback with us. We love hearing from you.


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 Aaron Goodman 00:06

Welcome to the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. I'm Aaron Goodman, host and founder of the podcast. I'm a journalist, documentary maker, university instructor and Communication Studies researcher, and I've lived with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity or MCS for many years. MCS is also known as Environmental Illness, Chemical Intolerance, and Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance or TILT, and it affects millions around the world. Many with a condition are dismissed by healthcare workers, employers, friends, and family. And countless people with MCS struggle to find healthy housing, and get accommodation at work and school. And we suffer in all kinds of ways. The purpose of the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast is to help raise awareness about MCS and what it's like for people who live with it. We featured interviews with some of the world's leading experts and researchers on MCS, and lots of people with the condition and we're just getting started.

I'm very grateful for generous support for the podcast from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation, and thank you very much to listeners, many listeners who support the podcast. If you'd like to make a monthly contribution or a one-time donation, you can please find links on the website, chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org. Your support will help us continue making the podcast available and creating greater awareness by MCS. Thanks so much.

You're listening to Episode 42. It's called “Fighting to Breathe.” It features a conversation with Professor Nicole FabriCant. Nicole is a professor of anthropology and director of Latin American and Latino Latina studies at Towson University in Maryland, on the east coast of the United States. And her research focuses on issues of environmental toxicity and community activism. Nicole is the author of the outstanding 2022 book, “Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity, and the rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore.”

In our conversation, you'll hear Nicole talk about the book and how she has worked with youth in South Baltimore, who have used creative forms of activism to push back against serious chemical pollution that impacts their health. Nicole also talks about how many people in South Baltimore suffer from asthma and likely undiagnosed MCS. Nicole also talks about how it's important for everyone, not just people whose health is clearly affected by chemicals to act.  

I hope you get a lot out of the conversation and this episode. We release new episodes twice a month. Please subscribe where you get your podcasts. Find us on social media, just search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast or podcastingMCS. Please leave your comments about anything you hear on the podcast. We love hearing from you. And you can find the podcast on YouTube. Just go to YouTube and search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. And you can read captions in any language you like. Leave a review online where you hear the podcast it's a great way to help others learn about the podcast. And if there's someone you'd like to hear interviewed on the podcast or a topic you'd like us to explore, just let us know email info@chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org.

Lastly, the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast and its associated website are the work of Aaron Goodman, and made possible with funds from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation, supporting efforts to educate and inform physicians, scientists and public about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. The content opinions, findings, statements and recommendations expressed in this Chemical Sensitivity Podcast and associated website do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of its sponsors. Thanks so much for listening.

 

Aaron Goodman 04:18

Welcome, Nicole, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me. Would you like to share a little bit more with listeners about yourself, please? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 4:25

Sure. So I grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which is tracked in the book in the preface, just because I think it shaped in a lot of ways some of my intellectual and political questions. It's a industrial first generation Latinx city pretty close to New York, about 20 minutes outside of New York City. And we would walk to school smelling certain things in the air and always were concerned around the factories just not knowing what we were breathing in. It was a port city similar to Baltimore, so a lot of chemicals were coming and going. And even our water, I remember sort of growing up thinking about always having bottled water because we were concerned about our tap water.

So I think growing up in an environmental justice community, in many respects, shaped the kinds of questions I wanted to ask and the work I wanted to do. And my dad was a professor at Hunter College, he taught social work, and he was an organizer himself. So I always say that I was sort of born into social justice organizing, in some respects, he would have me on his back at demonstrations, and he and my mom and a group of folks founded a coalition to house the homeless. So I kind of grew up in many respects, around homeless people. And I think that was the other piece that really shaped this quest to create structural change. 

 

Aaron Goodman 5:52

Thank you so much. And in the introduction to your book. And by the way, the acknowledgments section for folks who read the book is just incredible. It's one of the most wonderful acknowledgement sections that I've ever come across. It's so moving, how you write about the people who really inspired you. And that was just so moving. And it's a great setup, it made me want to read your book. And so let me just share with you one short quote from your introduction, and you write: “My first encounters with low wage labour happened inside the homes of these adults, the parents of my dearest friends. By age five, I knew what economic struggle looked like, smelled and tasted like, especially for first generation migrants and their families.” So Nicole, could you help me understand help us understand? Who were you talking about? Who are the people living in your community? And how were they exposed to environmental toxins? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 07:03

Sure, so many of my closest friends were first generation. Their parents had come from Guatemala, from Honduras, Bolivia, Ecuador, and many of their parents worked in the factories. And Elizabeth, that was the first job upon landing in this industrial port city. And so I think it ranged from we have this large Budweiser beer factory to a cookie plant. We're very close to Newark, New Jersey. So that also has its own set of environmental harms and pollutants. And I think, folks, every day, we're probably exposed to all sorts of chemicals, we had an incinerator as well. And I know a little bit about some of the harms of folks who either work inside or are living close to incinerator. So we're talking about probably mercury exposures, there could have been high levels of lead. We know that lead impacts cognitive right abilities. So there's probably a series of kind of harmful either chemicals or heavy metals that folks were exposed to.

 

Aaron Goodman 08:11

 And you were witnessing this as a young person, what did it smell like? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 08:15

So I always say it usually smelled like rotten eggs. And kids have an incredible way of making sense of their world. So in South Baltimore, where I I have spent the last 13 years working in organizing, young people will talk about the incinerator as a cloud making machine, because it's sort of the way they make sense they naturalized. And so for us, you know, when we smelled rotten eggs, we would think, ‘Wow, maybe it's like food waste or something you don't really you sort of disassociate in some respects from those industrial facilities, it becomes part of this naturalized landscape.’ And it's not abnormal, because it is your reality growing up. So I think in some respects, we just would talk about it, but not quite know where it came from, or what the harms might have been understood. 

 

Aaron Goodman 9:07

 And so your work as an anthropologist has been, as you say, in in South Baltimore. For folks who are listening, can you can you situate it for us? Where is it and what's it like there? How many people live there? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 09:21

Sure. So oftentimes, I describe South Baltimore as a no-man's land, it's often a place that folks would not go to for tourism for entertainment. Inner Harbor is our downtown area and Baltimore in the last 30 years has become a tourist economy, a service sector like many other US cities, right? Large cities or waterfront areas are attracting folks from the outside. And there's a lot of jobs kind of consolidated in the downtown area service work primarily, we also are in EDS and meds so the expansion of

like hospitals, and I will get into why that's important because most of the waste winds up in South Baltimore hospital waste as well. But it has been the engine, these anchor institutions of the economy. 

And so South Baltimore is about 20 minutes down further south from the inner harbor or from the downtown area. And many folks would have no reason to go there. It was a part of like the county or more sort of rural suburban, but the city claimed it or a next step from the county at the turn of the century, when they started industrializing. It is the hub of all the industries pretty much it was zoned in the early 1930s. Heavy industry. So you can see on like a zoning map from the 30s, how it was shaded in kind of gray that that's the zone where all of the first fertilizer agriculture industries or your would be housed gas, we see petroleum.

 

Then now today, what we see as our waste infrastructure, so we have to incinerators and a medical waste incinerator all located in South Baltimore. And we have the second largest open air coal export pier on the East Coast. And that's located in South Baltimore. So you have this combination of like non- renewable fossil fuels, and chemicals that are all utilizing the waterways for export. But housing, many of these industries on the land where folks are living, so it's both residential. The coal pier is 1,000 feet from homes from a recreation center, and heavy industry. 

 

Aaron Goodman 11:48

That's incredible. So, you know, there are substances such as guano, which is the excrement of seabirds, seabirds and bats that's used in fertilizer, petroleum, chloral sulphonic acid, and these cause varying degrees of damage to humans and the natural world. 

So people who live there are really, it sounds like, everywhere you look, every time you take a breath, people who live there or are exposed to harmful chemicals. It's right there.

 

Nicole Fabricant 12:22

Yes, absolutely.You can literally sometimes see, and it's very, I always talk about this as slower violence, not the fast violence of policing, while this community is over policed in the way that many low income, Black communities are over policed. This is a slower form of violence, and it's very invisible. So you wouldn't see the plumes, you wouldn't see PM 2.5, or PM 10, because they're tiny. But I will say because of the combination, the cumulative impact you can physically see in the air on days, where it's incredibly windy, how smog filled the air is and when I take students down on toxic tours, if they haven't grown up in environmental justice communities, they often talk about their nose being irritated, or having trouble breathing. Many students have had trouble breathing. So it's almost like you walk into this area, and you have this very physical adverse reaction to all the chemicals and fine particulate matter.

 

Aaron Goodman 13:29

And a lot of the people or would you say most people who live in South Baltimore, are African Americans or Black people.

 

Nicole Fabricant 13:38

It's very mixed racially. So it was home to Eastern Europeans at the turn of this century. Many of them worked in the canning industry down there. So it was always sort of struggling communities kind of impoverished tied to industries. The canning industry was kind of like a patron client of they had jobs. And they also had a company town setup. And then there were some Appalachian migration. So you get like Eastern European, you get poor whites coming from Appalachia. And then during the great migrations, you have a lot of Blacks working on the shipyards in Curtis Bay. So they were obtaining jobs through the war economy. So you had shipbuilding, which was a major enterprise. And there was segregated housing, right, because this was an era kind of, of Jim Crow segregation. So you had the Black homes and you had the white homes. And the Black homes were subpar. Most didn't have sanitation services. There were all kinds of just like, very harmful ways, I think in which infrastructure was kind of impacting right their ability to thrive and survive. So what we see today is a real mix of Latinx because there's been more recent Central American migrations to that area. First generation like many of the kids we’ve worked with are just learning English. And then you have great migration. So you have a maybe 30% or so Black, and then you have a pretty good high percentage of working class working whites.

 

Aaron Goodman 15:14

So Caucasian as well. And it's pretty even in terms of demographics. But you do write that the, you know, there is a connection between the toxic pollution and slavery and racist racism. Right? Could you talk a little bit about how that works? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 15:30

Sure. So, you know, I thought a lot because I was writing and thinking about this during a time of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, so many young Black men were, their lives were taken away. And so the idea of I Can't Breathe really became a mantra, the Black Lives Matter movement in a moment where these interlocking systems of oppression has created higher levels of violence or crime in Black communities. But yet, our band aid approach is more and more policing, right, as opposed to dealing with the structural inequities. And so in Baltimore, in west east, in parts of south we see communities that are almost, you know, Cherry Hill, very close to Curtis Bay, 99% Black, and experiencing constant either harassment threats from police. 

So I always think about slavery as the commodification, essentially, of human beings, right, like we utilize science to classify people to justify right slave labour, whereby a group of plantation owners kind of benefited know, from this labour. And so I think, you know, we haven't come that far from that horrific slave past. Because I think about even shortly after before, you know, civil rights, we're thinking about the ways in which Black people weren't allowed to own homes in Baltimore, right. So there were covenants in particular areas where it was written into the covenant into the deed of the home that a Black or a Jew could not buy a home. So that was like early 1900s. And then 1937. You have redlining. So these are what I think of as the afterlives of slavery. Essentially, you no longer oppress people through slave labour, but you lock them out of the possibility of having a productive, healthy, even like the backbone of our country's private property ownership. And they were not even allowed to accumulate wealth through property ownership. 

So these afterlives are part of I would say the reality today on the ground, and many of these communities that have been deemed hazardous have never fully been able to acquire the resources, the educational system transportation system, and so people become locked in as renters, or public housing, which in Baltimore is pretty horrific in terms of the ways in which public housing also has its own series of environmental harms and concerns, dilapidated buildings, and often those public homes are built on environmental justice lands, right public housing typically would be built on top of brownfield sites. And so you have ways in which these bodies are still disposable and expendable. We haven't really, it's just a softer, perhaps form of deep-seated racism than the explicit slip slave labour, right. But I still see the embers of that history of slavery, defining everyday life for Black folks in Baltimore.

 

Aaron Goodman 18:53

Thank you, can we talk a little bit more about I Can't Breathe? Because I think this isn't a parallel that you write about, but I think a lot of people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Environmental Illness, really get that right. Like, and you write about how breathing is complicated. So can you talk a little bit more about how breathing is complicated for folks who live in Baltimore? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 19:19

Sure. So I think about environmental harms as state sanctioned violence, like I'm very clear about that this is intentional, and these are harms that our government is complicit alongside private industries and not protecting vulnerable communities. So to not be able to breathe to me is about premature illnesses and even death, right, similar to policing or over policing. The I Can't Breathe, literally choking and taking your last breath as the police officer has you, you know, down on the ground. 

And so I'm working on the ground in Curtis Bay, the one thing students would always talk about in high school was that they all had respiratory illnesses or asthma. I've never seen so many cases, we would ask folks on the first day of class and the entire classroom would raise their hands that they had asthma, many of them don't have health care coverage. So we're talking about paying out of pocket emergency room visits accumulating and accruing medical debt tied to respiratory illnesses. And sometimes the kids would even talk about sharing asthma pumps, because they couldn't afford asthma medicine. And in a country, as wealthy and affluent as ours, it just, you know, tore me apart to literally see that kids couldn't afford basic kinds of medicines that would allow them to play sports. 

So oftentimes, it the coaches would say, we don't have enough healthy players for a volleyball team this year and Curtis Bay, or we don't have enough players who can make it to the basketball clinics. And so breathing is very much you know, it's complicated, because I think it's on the minds of all these young people, whether it impacts them directly or someone in their family, they've watched people not being able to breathe, I've had so many stories told to me about rushing to the emergency room in the middle of the night, because someone literally was trying to catch their breath.

And we know, this zip code has the highest rates of asthma in the entire country because of the cumulative impacts of industries. Which means that there are so many people residents living with respiratory illnesses, and it is tied to the kinds of factories and industries that are housed in this community. 

 

Aaron Goodman 21:54

Hi, just pausing briefly to say thanks for listening to the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. You're listening to Episode 42. It's called “Fighting to Breathe.” It features a conversation Professor Nicole Fabricant. Nicole is a professor of anthropology and director of Latin American and Latino Latina studies at Towson University in Maryland, on the east coast of the US. She's also the author of the 2022 book, “Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore.” I hope you get a lot out of the conversation in this episode. Subscribe when you get your podcasts.

 

Aaron Goodman 22:37

Nicole, do folks share with you details about other kinds of medical issues? And as we talked about, a lot of people, including myself, I didn't know I had Environmental Illness, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity for a long time. You know, because it shows up in many different ways. Some people get headaches or, you know, tingling, what's often called neuropathy, fatigue, you know, all kinds of the list is really really long ways in MCS shows up. Did people ever talk with you about you know, you mentioned respiratory illness or asthma? Do people suffer and other kinds of ways that you're aware of? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 23:17

Absolutely, I think many probably have undiagnosed Environmental Illnesses, and part of it is they just have poor medical care, or are not insured at all. So they're not able to get any clearer diagnosis. People complain all the time about fatigue, exhaustion. Certainly, I've heard students tell stories about feeling out of it or brain fog of sorts, they've talked about tingling. There are very high rates of cancer in the community as well, which is clearly linked to environmental harms. And then listening to residents talk about coffee and coal dust. So because some of them live so close to the coal pier, every time the wind blows, there's fugitive coal dust that layers, their homes, their gutters, people talk about white plates in their kitchen that become layered in cold dust. And so folks have talked about having sinus allergy, all sorts of problems, but when they cough up, they would literally see the Black, cold dust, right coming out mixed with mucus.

 

Aaron Goodman 24:32

Thank you so disturbing. You write about Baltimore, and your work is really in this book focused on Baltimore. And I wonder if you could kind of talk perhaps about the U.S. across the board or North America or even globally, you know, in your view, as you understand it, our race people who are racialized you know this visible minorities? Are they more exposed to toxic chemicals than wealthy or middle-class Caucasians? How do you see that on the ground? 

 

Nicole Fabricant 15:20

Sure. Um, so probably, you know, 30 years ago, I feel like Robert Bullard, who is the founding father of environmental justice was mapping the ways in which hazardous waste sites landfills, literally quantitatively and qualitatively, illustrating across the United States how it was disproportionately impacting poor communities of colour. And majority of the areas he was looking were like Black communities. But I would make the argument today in particular areas, especially with strong Latin American kind of migrations, that it's also impacting Latinx communities as well. And some part of that the argument, no matter where we are in the United States is that land is cheap in poor communities. So it's easy to acquire the land. And there's an illusion that poor people won't fight back. So Black and brown communities are just trying to make ends meet, and they won't notice the industries. This is part of kind of the logic of why they set up I mean, the Gulf, and Louisiana Cancer Alley is a perfect example of the expansion of petrochemical facilities and the impacts upon poor Black Americans that were the backbone of our economy, right, like built out the wealth that has like accumulated in the hands of so many people. 

So to leave them in these toxic brews, to me is just quite disturbing, considering the long legacy of Black migrants, you know, through a transatlantic slave trade that we're literally brought to, you know, to work right the lands in the United States. So that certainly is part of it. And I think the other real sort of disparity is that most affluent or middle-class white communities have something called NIMBY and environmental justice, which is not in my neighborhood. 

So there is political and economic power that has accumulated in these much more middle class or affluent areas whereby industries won't even think about moving an incinerator into, you know, particular area. And I think back to growing up in Elizabeth, and it was like a prime place Newark, New Jersey, all Black, right? majority Black city, Elizabeth, New Jersey, predominantly Latinx, poor first generation, not speaking the language. So again, there's this idea that we can set up shop here, and whether there are jobs or not. And Elizabeth, those factories provided jobs in Baltimore, these factories do not provide jobs, I think that's very important to state because they're part of the global tentacles of a plastics industry, you know, or our fossil, non-renewable fossil fuel industry. So some part of it is moving towards much more automated high tech ways. You don't even need labourers anymore. And if they are, they're not hired from the local community. So really, it is completely overburdening without the job piece, whereas in my community, folks at least had jobs tied to these industries.

 

Aaron Goodman 28:38

Well, thank you so much, and it is just really disturbing. You know, but one of the things that I want to talk with you about or find out more about is the ways people in Baltimore have come together and pushed back. Yeah, and I think that's really incredible, you write about a lot of incredible examples of, of creative activism. So maybe, before we ask you about some specific examples, could you talk to me a little bit about who rise? Who's rising up? Who rose up? Are these young people predominantly? And was it their direct experience with being exposed to toxic pollution that led them to rise up?

 

Nicole Fabricant 29:28

Sure. I would say that predominantly, it has been a youth-driven and youth-led movement, ranging in age from probably 15, as young as 15 to like 18 or 19. However, these young people have galvanized the support the admiration of many different citizens across Baltimore and pretty much across the state of Maryland. So there are public health professionals that were so inspired, I heard, because they know right, like the health consequences and wanted to support these youth. There have been professors and faculty in different disciplines that have come and supported the youth. There are environmental justice lawyers and legal teams of folks that have supported. So I would say that really, you know, at this point, it's like a city wide movement for environmental equity, but also for regenerative economics. So thinking beyond an extractive and capitalist model to reuse facilities, compost, composting, you know, how and in what ways can we move beyond both fossil fuels, but also a burn infrastructure. And that takes a lot of really important powerful, like engineers and designers and folks who are committed to this sustainable form of development.

But the youth were the engine. And so let me talk a little bit about them and how it started, because they are the most inspirational, I think of all of this, you know, they're the frontliners. They're the ones growing up in impacted communities. They're breathing toxic air, going to subpar schools living in a food apartheid area where they don't have access to healthy foods, and all that together is probably creating all sorts of biological and even physical reactions.

But they started as an after school program, and it was simply a support system for young people who would come and talk about issues, right. And they would talk about things such as not having access to food. And then this this group, this after school group, received a newspaper article about a plan to build a trash to energy incinerator. And this was going to be built a mile from their school. And it sparked their interest in part because they wanted to understand well, a, why would they place an incinerator so close to a school, and B, what harms does incineration do to human health or to the environment? Why? Right? And so the youth started by collecting research, they became kind of qualitative and quantitative researchers. And to me that was just phenomenal because they use data in a way to then be able to make an argument against this trash to energy incinerator. And so in the book, I track their campaign. And it was filled with like, art, and music, rap music, hip hop music, every facet of like cultural life, I would say. And I think of art as a language in some ways, for organizing for resistance. 

And it was a way that they were able to really speak to people right appeal to the emotions of so many different like even city politicians that aren't often on their side. So these creative tactics were incredibly useful at building a pretty large movement. And they wound up through the research finding out that every public entity had invested in dirty energy they had bought in before the incinerator was built to steam because that's what they were going to produce by burning. And they wound up building out a divestment campaign. 

And I always say that this ended in civil disobedience and for youth of colour to choose to put their bodies on the line is a huge decision. Because A, they already are experiencing police violence in their communities and don't want to become entangled in the criminal justice system and don't want that to mark them in ways for future jobs, because of the way structural racism works. But yet, they chose to do that because of how power flee, they were connected to these issues. And that was the nail in the coffin, like by occupying the secretary of the environments office, they really brought attention to Maryland Department of the Environment that they had their permit expired, and they won this huge battle, and it was never built. So I think that that was like a David versus Goliath story in some ways, for young people who many don't even take them seriously to take on a transnational corporation and actually beat them. And, you know, across the board, like even though they were going to bring money to Baltimore, even though they promised jobs for Baltimore, even though they had an economic and political capital, these youth through organizing wound up winning, and were victorious. So I think it's one of those stories that can be a lesson to folks in organizing, right, no matter how overburdened or how beaten down or how hard because we're living right now.

In very hard times, state by state is starting to censor right, what folks can read how they can think critically. And I think these youth took it upon themselves to do their own education, right to chip away at those structures that have really circumscribed their movement, and then came up with a strategy to attack. And I think that, you know, there are so many more people in this country than industrial sort of CEOs. It's just a matter of kind of raising consciousness and figuring out how to build these broader movements.

 

Aaron Goodman 35:39

It's really incredible. Nicole, I wanted to ask you, you know, people talk a lot about the burden falling upon the people who are impacted the most to to push back, right. How do you see that? Do you see that as just another layer of injustice that, you know, the youth whose lives are impacted by, you know, chronic exposure to harmful chemicals? It falls upon them to push back? How do you? How do you view that and when it comes to, you know, people who experience ill health like people with multiple chemical sensitivity, or, you know, people with chronic fatigue, it's often talked about, it's very difficult for people to be in a demonstration or rally, right, people who are, you know, can't be among people, because they react to fragrances makes, you know, rallying and being part of these movements, kind of an extra adds an extra layer of challenge. So that's just kind of a mishmash of thoughts. Please take it however you like.

 

Nicole Fabricant 36:42

I have thought about this question over and over, I always say the irony of our moment is that poor people, and people of colour have to shoulder the burden of what government should be doing, but because government has been essentially bought out through lobbyists, and you know, some of them are the chemical and the fertilizer and the big agribusinesses or pharmaceuticals, that we really don't have checks and balances or a government, what we have is the private sector dictating policies. And so in some respects, you know, I think about the fact that for 80 years, residents have been complaining about coal dust, and no one has taken them seriously. They've testified they've gone to City Hall, they've tried to articulate in so many ways, the harms of all these heavy metals and impurities, and plumes in their air from the open air coal pier. X is an $8 billion corporation that now controls the coal Pier. And people of the community had to ask their own questions and do their own research. So they acquired a team, basically, of environmental justice scientists who followed the lead of residence. This was the first study of its kind, essentially, whereby the residents were saying, This is what's going on. And the scientists were actually coming up with an apparatus to measure. 

So we wound up having a pretty intricate air quality network system in place that was measuring what was in the air trail camera that was constantly running at the coal pier to be able to identify the blowing of the wind. And then youth took part in citizen science where they were measuring how far the future of coal dust was traveling. And so this is a perfect example of young people having to become scientists, because government won't do anything. 

And so it's only through the science and proving that dust travels quantitatively, that Maryland Department of the Environment, and we're still questioning whether they'll come up with harsher, regulatory, you know, restrictions upon X or not. But that's the only way to pressure government to actually intervene for communities and for human health. Because if left to their own devices, they continue to ignore it. And even now, in the aftermath, the report was released. It's an ongoing negotiation with the Maryland Department of the Environment for stricter regulations. And X was hiring their own law or their own scientists. So it's like we're always constantly, you know, you're battling billion dollar corporations that easily can pay lawyers right and begin to equip teams of scientists that would disprove the environmental and human health harms. So it sounds like it's a mix of citizens becoming scientists, you know, doing that, that research and also informing policymakers and the public moving them. Right? Through art, right. So it's that combination.

Absolutely. But it is a burden. I will say that this is an extra layer, because people are working multiple jobs in this community and on top of multiple jobs or going to school or getting a GED, they then volunteer their time to do this kind of work. So you're right about that being like an over another overburden? Yeah. And they're doing it while grappling with multiple health challenges.

 

Aaron Goodman 40:44

Across the board, maybe as we aim to wrap up, and it's been fascinating hearing you learning more about your, your work and the community in Baltimore, across the U.S., and perhaps globally, do you see Nicole more evidence that people are becoming more aware and more concerned, and also pushing back against harmful chemical pollution?

 

Nicole Fabricant 41:18

I would hope so. Although we often groups from Curtis Bay where I've worked, I take organizers to the belly of the beast of the oil and gas industry, which is Washington County, Pennsylvania, Marcellus Shale, where they are fracking now, for natural gas that's feeding our petrochemical facilities. And the hope for pet cam is that the Ohio River Valley will begin to compete and be stronger than Louisiana because they're concerned about climate change. How ironic is that? So oil and gas has like thought about this right and are now preventative ly setting up new pet cam, the harms of our plastic industry is incredible vinyl chloride and some of the just like backbone of plastics, we're about to head out to visit the folks in East Palestine to hear their stories of struggle. Because again, we see government neglect, failure to provide basic services, people are dealing with all sorts of health concerns. 

And I wish I could say each community has sown this beautiful quilt of resistance, that we're connecting what's going on in East Palestine to Curtis Bay, to cancer alley in Louisiana, and we have this broad based movement. But unfortunately, the way this works is we have so few resources and organizers are overburdened, that you're just fighting to survive. And so those bigger questions of pushback and regulatory apparatus and banning plastics completely, which is our vision, but it will never be possible if oil and gas continue to profit off of it. So I think that we're in desperate need. I mean, there's so much plastics in our waterways and our oceans, we just don't know what to do with it. microplastics are in our bodies. 

So to think about how we have altered biology, genetics, reproductive health, excetera, through the kinds of chemicals should be a wake up call to all of us to unite to put in those extra hours beyond work to say, we resist, we won't continue to support single use plastics, right? But unfortunately, like the X battle, we're up against billion dollar industries here that have reaches to the global economy, right. So you cut off one tentacle and five more seem to grow in the aftermath of just accomplishing something pretty small. So I don't want to end on like a pessimistic note, but I hope this is like a wake up call in some ways, because I always say it's not just overburdened communities, we're all collateral damage. We are all impacted by decisions that these large corporations are making that is in our food supply in our waters in the air we breathe and so as concerned citizens, we need to not say it's, ‘Oh, it's an environmental justice issue or it's just poor Black and brown,’ because we're all impacted. And so I think that that should be the impetus for a much broader movement and my hope I like I'm never give up hope is that we're beginning to craft those important, like cross border relationships and build solidarity from north to south around these issues.

 

Aaron Goodman 44:55

Oh, that's that's so amazing to hear you talk about those connections. And so that was the question that I had in mind hearing you was, can people who are not, you know, perceptibly impacted by chemical pollution? Can they continue to ignore it? Right? Can the people in South Baltimore remain an island, you know, so to speak? And when we met draw the thread back to people with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and Environmental Illnesses, can folks who do not believe in the illness or deny and dismiss, can they continue to just turn a blind eye to what's happening to millions of people?

 

Nicole Fabricant 45:42

I don't think we can, like, I honestly think between climate change right now, and how catastrophic it is, and, you know, just every day harms through our food, it's going to be very, it's going to be harder and harder to ignore. Now, the question of whether or not that huge crisis is looming quicker than we could actually mobilize to create change is still I mean, an unknown, right? Because I think so many folks are just gonna dry up whatever finite resources like no one, right, as long as there's profit margins, they will continue to extract coal, extract, oil and gas.

And some part of you know, this movement really has to address how we get those dollars out of politics, because I think part of it is, you know, the lobbying efforts have really compromised our ability to live all of us like healthier lives, right? Automobility, just thinking about that as harmful. We don't have public transportation infrastructures, or highspeed rail to take us from one spot to another, like, all these adjustments we can make, but it's really got to be about political will. And if that much money is coatingthe pockets of our politicians, you know, I think it's it makes it more and more challenging, but that, you know, as part of movement building, nothing ever has changed in this country without strong movements. And that's what I tell my students every day, you wouldn't have an eight-hour workday without unions, you know, and even though they have been eviscerated, hopefully there's new formations of movements that will really begin to create this change at a national and international level.

 

Aaron Goodman 47:36

That brings us to the end of this episode of the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. Thank you very much to Professor Nicole Fabricant for speaking with me. We release new episodes twice a month. Subscribe where you get your podcasts. I'm grateful for support for the podcast from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation, and thank you very much to many listeners who support the podcast. If you'd like to make a monthly contribution or a one-time donation, please find links on our website, chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org. Your support will help us continue making the podcast available and creating greater awareness about MCS.

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