Dumping on the Disenfranchised: Environmental Justice Implications of Polychlorinated Biphenyl Contamination in Minden, West Virginia
Thomas, Bradley A.
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CitationThomas, Bradley A. 2020. Dumping on the Disenfranchised: Environmental Justice Implications of Polychlorinated Biphenyl Contamination in Minden, West Virginia. Master's thesis, Harvard Extension School.
AbstractMinden is a small former coal mining town located in mountains of West Virginia. At its peak in the mid-20th Century, it was a thriving community of about 1,200. By 2010, the town’s population had shriveled to 250, about 100 of whom having been diagnosed with some form of cancer and Minden was dubbed “the most toxic town in America.” Studies are ongoing but most of the evidence seemed to point to exposure to PCBs, which leaked into the soil and water after the Shaffer Equipment Company disposed of old electrical equipment in landfills and abandoned mine shafts in the 1970s and early 80s, as the most likely cause for Minden’s cancer epidemic.
This study began with an analysis of data from the Cancer Registry Data aimed at ascertaining whether the cancers more prominent in Fayette County are the types that are more commonly associated with PCB exposure. Taken as a whole, the studies reviewed seem to agree that PCB exposure was a likely factor in the occurrence of cancers of the breasts, intestines, liver, lungs, rectum, stomach and esophagus, tongue and testes. The next step was to look to identify the other Superfund NPL sites in West Virginia, and determine which ones are on the list because of PCB contamination. Once the PCB sites were isolated, the cancer statistics for the other counties in which those sites are located were compared to the Fayette County cancer statistics. Having drawn a plausible connection between PCB exposure in the Minden community to certain types of cancers, the next consideration was the role that social vulnerability plays in not only the exposure of a community to toxins like PCBs but also to the health outcomes members of a vulnerable community experience once having been exposed. Social vulnerability is the measure of how certain factors, such as overcrowding, social disorder, racial discrimination, fear for one’s physical safety and lack of economic resources, are in play in a given community, increasing risk for disease. Then, to test for cause and effect arising from this analysis, an expert was consulted, Lora Siegmann Werner, the Regional Director of the ATSDR’s Eastern Branch, Region 3. Ms. Werner was asked about the challenge of being able to conclude that there exists a cause and effect relationship between the history of the dumping of PCBs in and around Minden, WV, and the perceived higher than normal per capita rate of cancer cases and cancer related deaths in that community. Finally, a site visit was conducted to make first-hand observations of the landscape, the creek bed and the residential community that is Minden. Those firsthand observations were then compared with data with respect to per capita income, median household income, median family income and poverty.
This study concluded that in EJ (environmental justice) communities like Minden, WV, that are low-income and possess low political power, both environmental and socioeconomic stressors combine synergistically to create health disparities. Although publicly accessible health outcomes data are available on a national, state and county scale, it is not for the neighborhood level. Research frameworks are needed to comprehensively explore the complex, interrelated factors leading to vulnerability including community stressors, neighborhood resources and environmental pollutants. The science of evaluating environmental risk and health outcomes in EJ communities needs to be augmented and upgraded with an emphasis on community-based participatory research methods (CBPR) that includes both a qualitative and quantitative perspective.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365027