WASHINGTON -- An Environmental Protection Agency scientist in Chicago is putting the final touches on a computer program that can identify neighborhoods where childhood exposure to lead is likely to be rampant. Corrective measures would be concentrated there -- most likely focusing the benefits on black children, who are known to suffer disproportionately from lead poisoning.
In the New York metropolitan region, the agency is merging census data and lists of hazardous waste sites to determine whether wealthier communities are getting preferential treatment under the federal Superfund program to clean up abandoned chemical waste dumps.
The research projects represent a new emphasis at the agency on "environmental equity," the catchwords used in recent years by grass-roots organizations lobbying for more aggressive steps to protect the environment where poor people and minority groups live and work.
Although environmentalists have long cited anecdotal evidence and some statistics to argue that pollution hits hardest those who are also disadvantaged by reason of race or income, the argument has never had a firm scientific foundation.
A group headed by EPA official Robert Wolcott has drafted a report that calls for the agency to increase the priority it gives to protecting the disadvantaged, both by analyzing the issue more intensively and by targeting environmental regulations and financial grants to help high-risk groups in minority and low-income communities.
"A key implication of the findings in this report is that EPA does not presently give enough explicit priority to issues of environmental equity," the draft report said.
But the report also noted that data on race, income, health and environment were generally so poor that they proved little conclusively.
"Although there are clear differences between ethnic groups for disease and death rates, there are virtually no data to document the environmental contribution to these differences," the report concluded.