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Reflections on environmental health and justice from an expectant mother

by Rachel Lang-Balde
Rachel Lang-Balde
As I await the birth of my second child, I’m considering the implications of environmental health and justice on my family, my community and our state. Environmental health and justice affect all parents – and come into play in multiple ways throughout pregnancy, the birthing process, parenthood and child development.

As a public health graduate student, my focus was on maternal health and nutrition. Environmental health was a factor in studies of food supply, equitable distribution of resources, water and sanitation, and the community implications of nutritional choices. Becoming a mother while in graduate school made me take a closer look at environmental health and justice beyond the scope of research, thinking about potential consequences to my family and the most vulnerable in my community. I realized environmental health and justice included a safe environment, but also access to healthy organic food, safety from chemicals (Scientific American article) and pollutants in water, and use of nontoxic products. In other words, motherhood encompasses not just the care of a child, but becoming an advocate for others, too, and helping them understand their power to advocate for a clean, safe and just environment for all families….

As CWFNC’s Outreach Coordinator, I work with individuals and communities to build access to resources about environmental health. As I embark upon motherhood for the second time, I reflect on recent NC legislation and decisions that can affect all families, specifically in regards to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas in shale formations.

Any parent knows there is an innate concern, a constant nagging in the back of your head, concerning your child’s health and safety. Even the most laid-back parent is occasionally thrown for a loop by the multitude of factors one must consider on a daily basis –plastics like BPA in bottles and toys, pesticides and chemicals in foods and medicines, and exposure to pollutants in drinking water are just a few. My family is lucky to live in a community with access to clean water, not affected by heavy pollution; and my education gives me an advanced understanding of the consequences of environmental degradation.

I’ve been profoundly affected by what we’ve learned about the community and health impacts of fracking: the unspeakable stories of families experiencing toxic water and air, chronic illness, and an assault on their basic rights to safe homes and liveable communities. The fact that residents’ rights to personal health, access to clean water and non-polluted air are being threatened elsewhere should be of immense concern to all North Carolinians as we evaluate whether to allow fracking here.

Many folks at a 2010 Oil and Gas Accountability Project conference I attended on the impacts of fracking commented on NC’s “lucky” position – unlike 30+ other states, our current laws preventing injection of toxic wastes and high pressure fracturing have given us time to carefully review how others have been affected and to honestly evaluate before we take the same path. Someone suggested that we needed to engage mothers (I wanted to add fathers, too!) in order to really mobilize folks. This year’s General Assembly session made us all aware of how quickly a state can undermine its environmental agency and protections, and proceed with a highly risky process without seriously evaluating the risks.

The maternal (or parental) instinct is a real and powerful force that should be acknowledged and acted upon. Those of us with more direct engagement in the environmental health and justice movements need to use those connections within our communities – schools, playgroups, churches, and beyond — to spread our knowledge and take action. Before NC allows a process as potentially destructive as fracking, we must be ready to answer for how our families and communities will be protected for generations to come. As a mother and public health professional, I am very concerned about the level of awareness and understanding our elected officials have about fracking. I urge all North Carolinians, and especially the parents among us, to educate ourselves, and to push our elected officials to proceed intelligently and cautiously. We need to ask ourselves difficult questions about whether the risks and environmental injustices can possibly be worth it, and who will reap the benefits and costs, before considering any changes allowing fracking in NC.

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