The activity drew some attention from The Washington Post and The New York Times, but hasn’t received wider scrutiny. In fact, rational outlets basically ceded the stage to TV blowhards. The most high-profile coverage came from Fox News in January when Neil Cavuto and guest Christopher Horner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, lashed out at the EPA’s environmental justice grants program, which supports community groups working on solutions to local environmental and public health problems.

What stuck in Cavuto and Horner’s craw were two of the 46 small grants the agency awarded in 2011. One went to the Repertory Dance Theatre in Salt Lake City to teach kids about the impact of air pollution with “kinesthetic learning” (basically, dancing). The other went to the Cleveland Tenants Organization to teach people to prevent and treat bed-bug infestations without the use of harmful pesticides.

One could debate the merits of the grants, which were $25,000 each, but Cavuto and Horner denounced them with typical conservative nonsense. “Wealthier is healthier,” Horner said. “The more prosperous neighborhoods are always cleaner and so on. The sad part is they’re teaching people to oppose economic activity in areas where they most desperately need economic activity by preaching oppression and victimization.”

Local media offered a more measured perspective. The Salt Lake Tribune quoted Repertory Dance Theatre’s artistic director making the case that the performance classes were simply another way to teach kids about the importance of a clean environment. That’s a bit unconvincing, but in Cleveland—which has a serious bed-bug problem and which has been denied permission to use industrial-strength pesticides to fight infestations— Christopher Evans, a columnist at the Plain Dealer, ripped Cavuto and Horner for mocking the much-needed grant.

More stories like these and EHN’s series can help ferret out what the EPA is doing right and wrong, and to call attention the problems in low-income, minority communities in general. What’s needed, though, is a stronger focus on what’s being done to get a better handle on the consequences of pollution.

The impact on public health is a mystery, as EHN’s Katz and Kay noted, because of a disparity in research activity. Monitoring the chemical content of air, soil, and water near industrial sites “becomes useful only when it is paired with epidemiological data about the local population,” a 2010 article in Issues in Science and Technology, a publication of the National Academies, explained—and there is a dearth of epidemiological data.

The EPA is trying to change that. It recently revamped its risk-assessment program to look at the cumulative threats to communities from multiple environmental and social factors, awarding $7 million in related research grants last year. While it didn’t mention that work specifically, the third installment in EHN’s environmental justice series highlighted “a growing body of research [that] suggests that the chronic stressors of poverty may fundamentally alter the way the body reacts to pollutants, especially in young children.”

There’s more to come from EHN, and hopefully its work will encourage more outlets to consider weaving environmental justice issues into their coverage of toxics.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.