Q&A: Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Professor and scientist working for environmental justice, Notre Dame, Indiana

Kristin Shrader-Frechette has been selected by Catholic Digest as one of 12 Catholic heroes — laypeople living and/or working in the United States who are performing exemplary work in the spirit of the Catholic faith. Catholic Digest recently spoke with Shrader-Frechette, 62, about her work, her students, and what we all need to do to stop environmental injustice.

CD: Your work was integral in helping to create the environmental-justice movement in the late 1980s. Why is the environment a social-justice issue?

KSF: The environment is not necessarily a social-justice issue, but environmental effects of pollution are a social-justice issue. Environmental injustice — and by that I mean disproportionate pollution forced on children, poor people, minorities, and workers — is a social-justice issue, because unfair pollution burdens take away not only people’s money, but something that’s even more important: their lives and their health.

For instance, consider asthma. There are roughly 27 million U.S. children under age 13 who have asthma, and asthma has increased 40 percent in the last decade. More than half of the pediatric asthma population, under age 13, lives in areas that violate all four major U.S. air-pollution standards. What this really means is that there are a lot more people interested in saving money by not controlling their pollution than are interested in protecting the health of children. I call children the canaries in our coal mines of environmental injustice, because they’re the first to die from pollution. Normally the children who die first are the children of poor people and minorities.

CD: Can you briefly explain why environmental-injustice incidents end up happening in poor communities?

KSF: When polluters want to build a noxious dump, or to bring in a very dangerous facility, or to build a plant that will not follow pollution laws, they usually choose poor, minority communities because these communities simply don’t have the money to hire attorneys to ensure that the law is followed or to hire scientists to monitor local pollution levels.

CD: Is there something that your work in particular has been affecting, in terms of trying to rectify that kind of situation?

That’s exactly what we do. My students and I (in the Center for Environmental Justice and Children’s Health at Notre Dame) work mainly with minority communities, poor communities, Latino communities, Native American communities, and Appalachian communities. We simply try to provide some scientific help so that the people are able to protect themselves, especially their children. We can do maybe 30 projects a year, pro-bono. That’s a lot, but only because the Notre Dame students are so generous, so brilliant, and so committed to social justice. They’re just wonderful.

CD: And what urged you to get involved with this field?

KSF: That question has a long answer! (laughing) I had wonderful parents. They were both heavily involved in the civil-rights movement and in the peace movement. In fact, my mother was the first white member of the NAACP, in the state of Kentucky, where I grew up. When you have two magnificent parents for whom their Catholic faith is the single most important thing about them, both of whom are deeply committed to the Catholic social-justice traditions, that background stamps you for life! (laughing) It was impossible for me, once I had a science education, not to see that pollution is primarily an issue of social injustice.

CD: Is there a particular incident that occurred before you launched yourself in this field that just struck you and made you say, “This is what I have to do”?

KSF: Yes, yes. I can give you an example. I was 26 and had just gotten my Ph.D. Because my mother was dying of cancer — environmentally-induced cancer — (and) I still had three younger siblings at home, I returned home to Kentucky to teach (at the University of Louisville). A small group of Appalachian farmers — (from) the rural, northeastern part of Kentucky, the coal-mining area of the state — phoned me for help. The farmers said a local nuclear dump was illegally releasing liquid radioactive waste and killing their livestock. At the time, although the government prohibited these releases, it allowed low-level radioactive wastes, containing transuranics (material lethal for thousands of years), to be packaged in cardboard and buried in shallow, unlined dirt pits, only 15 feet deep — which seems unbelievable!

CD: Oh my goodness.

KSF: Yes, that shallow burial is no longer allowed, and our work helped stop it. We also helped close this substandard Kentucky nuclear dump. Whenever it rained, the 15-foot pits at the dump would fill up with radioactively-contaminated water. The waste company wanted a cheap, easy way to get rid of this polluted water, so they pumped it out, then released it over a hillside — at night — so nobody would see what was happening. Of course, the company denied what it was doing, and only costly scientific studies could prove how it was contaminating nearby lands. Suddenly I realized that poor people, with no technical background and no money to hire scientists or attorneys to protect them, have very few options, very few people who will help them. That’s what really got me hooked.

CD: How does your faith impact your work?

KSF: Probably in two main ways. In high school, I remember the Sisters of Mercy just drilling into us the preferential option for the poor. They convinced me that we all will be judged by how we treat the least among us, the poor. So it’s pretty obvious that if we’re living in air-conditioned houses, drinking filtered water, and eating organic food, then we can’t sit by while many poor people, minorities, and children are breathing dirty air, drinking dirty water, and eating chemically-contaminated food.

The other conviction that underlies my work is that our gifts are not our own. Thomas Aquinas makes this point very clearly. He says that what we don’t absolutely need, what we didn’t absolutely earn, belongs by natural right to the poor. You know, when you think about it, most of us have the jobs we do, or any opportunities in life, because, by sheer gift, we have high IQs or loving parents or something like that. We didn’t earn those things. But if we didn’t earn them, we don’t have a right to them, so my days belong to other people. They don’t belong to me.

CD: What concerns you about how well Americans are currently addressing the need to be environmentally responsible, and what gives you hope?

KSF: I think most Americans are good people. Eighty percent of Americans want to use renewable energy, for example. But thanks to lack of campaign finance reform and to corporate influences, what Americans want does not become a reality in Washington, D.C. Although people are good, they’re very poorly informed about how pollution threatens them, and especially threatens poor people and children. Let me give some examples.

First of all, automobiles. Roughly half of the deadly particulate pollution and ozone pollution that causes so much cancer, heart disease, and childhood asthma comes from transport, mainly automobiles. Only about 1 percent of U.S. travel is on public transport, but in nations like Japan or Finland or Denmark, 15 to 20 percent of all travel is on public transport. Americans’ use of large, heavily polluting automobiles is one of the major reasons that our children breathe dirtier air.

Or take the example of pesticides. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences says that in each generation, roughly one million premature deaths are caused by allowable levels of pesticides on our food. Most of these deaths occur among children, often from cancer and from neurological and developmental effects. In the United States, our children eat far more chemicals on their foods because U.S. pesticide regulations are weaker than those in Europe.

Garbage is another example. All of us have people who pick up our garbage — municipal waste haulers. Most of that garbage either goes to dumps in poor or minority neighborhoods, or is incinerated in the neighborhoods of poor people and minorities — not in our own neighborhoods. Waste incineration is a major source of heavy-metals pollution that harms children developmentally and neurologically.

Let me give you a fourth example. Mostly because of releases from coal-fired electricity plants, one in five U.S. women of childbearing age has blood levels of mercury that are able to cause neurological and developmental problems in her unborn children. You probably know that autism is now striking one in every 150 U.S. children. We have an epidemic of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder — ADHD — and an epidemic of childhood neurological and developmental disorders. What’s troubling to me is that, despite these statistics about the mercury in the blood of childbearing women, President Bush wants to raise mercury emissions by a factor of five by the year 2017, and he wants to raise mercury emissions by a factor of three every year after that. It makes no sense to weaken mercury standards. It makes no sense to live in this way when we know that only three of our states — Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas — could supply all of U.S. electricity needs from windpower, and could do so cost effectively.

CD: What do you suggest that people do to make an impact?

KSF: The first thing people need to know is that three-fourths of all U.S. science is bought and paid for by private interests, usually corporate interests. Second, people need to know that manipulated science — like the “tobacco science” that claimed, “Smoking is not harmful” — keeps Americans in the dark about deadly effects of pollution. Yet our own government has calculated that up to 90 percent of all cancers are “environmentally induced and theoretically preventable.” Third, what Americans need to do is educate themselves by joining some non-governmental organizations. Some of my suggestions are NETWORK, which is the National Catholic Social Justice Lobby (www.network.org). Another group is called Physicians for Social Responsibility (www.psr.org). Still others are Public Citizen (www.citizen.org) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org).

After hearing my suggestions, people may say, “Well, I’m not a joiner.” My response is, “That’s just naïve, because in today’s world, acting alone we are powerless to protect ourselves from pollution or anything else. Dorothy Day taught us that. The only way we have power is through community. CD

A closer look at Kristin Shrader-Frechette

  • Do you have a favorite book? “I have hundreds of favorites. Let me just tell you what I’ve read in the last two weeks — Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God and Douglas Brinkley’s biography of Rosa Parks.”
  • Favorite music: “Probably for at least 10 years, immediately after waking up, I’ve played Bach. I especially like the Brandenburg Concerti.”
  • Her family: Shrader-Frechette and her husband Maurice have two children: 30-year-old Eric and 27-year-old Danielle.
  • Favorite thing to do together: “Scuba diving in Florida Keys.”
  • Her heroes include: Her parents, Thomas Jefferson, Mary Harris (“Mother Jones”), her husband Maurice
  • Favorite way to relax: “To invite over friends, cook for them, and try a lot of exotic new recipes.”
  • Best advice you’ve ever received: “Since the time I was a child, my father has always said, ‘God will provide,’ no matter what we were going through.… For years and years I used to think that was just a pious platitude. And it also used to make me angry, because I used to think, ‘No, God expects us to provide’. Somewhere around age 50, I finally figured out that Dad was right too.”
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