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Kristal Brent Zook Headshot

Why Do We Tell Only Part of the Story When We Talk About Cancer?

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Lately almost every headline I see about African American women has to do with cancer:

We have more of it. We check for it too late. We aren't participating in clinical drug trials enough. We need to breast feed more to decrease risks. Body weight and red meat have something to do with it, but only for white women. And of course, the whammy: Black women diagnosed with cancer are more likely to die from the disease than are women of other races.

And yet, it is odd that for all this talk about cancer's effect, there is still so little coverage of toxic pollution -- which has been linked to cancer -- and how much more likely poor people and minorities are to be impacted by it.

Recently Yale University released a study, the first to look at specific particles in the air that contribute to increased asthma, and cancer. They found what has been already known for decades: pollution is not an equal-opportunity threat.

Try to think of a black community that's not bordered by a railroad track, freeway, or factory, wrote Robert Bullard more than two decades ago, in the book that helped to launch the environmental justice movement, Dumping in Dixie.

Since the poor and minorities are more likely to live near diesel trucks, power plants, auto repair shops, and industrial waste, the Yale study confirmed, they are hit hardest by toxins, with Latinos being the group at greatest risk.

Environmental justice leaders today recognize that being poor is as dangerous to your health as is being a person of color. Last month, for example, the Michigan NAACP called a coal power plant in Trenton one of six top "environmental justice offenders" in the nation, given its impact on the surrounding community, which is poor and predominantly white.

Some years ago, I traveled to Anniston, Ala., to write about what was then the largest class-action settlement ever won against an environmental polluter in this country: a $750 million judgment against Monsanto for PCB pollution, to be paid to more than 18,000 plaintiffs.

But what I discovered in the low-income, mixed-race city was that soil pollution was just the tip of the iceberg. Lead was another killer, and it was everywhere -- especially among black and poor children.

Still, after what I saw and learned, I can't help but be amazed by the lack of front-page headlines on the subject. Headlines that would connect the dots between black women needing to do more breast exams and where they live.

Headlines that might say something like this: "Minorities and poor people are surrounded by toxic waste, and not by accident. This is one reason why they tend to have more cancer."

I wonder if black and brown ribbons would be as popular as the pink ones.