With a population that is more than 95 percent Hispanic, the city of Laredo, Texas, has one of the highest proportions of Latino residents in the United States. Another statistic, one that’s not so favorable: Laredo is among the top 20 locations for heightened cancer risk, thanks to a medical sterilization plant emitting a toxic pollutant that increases the risk of leukemia, particularly for children.
Emission levels adhere to state regulations that fly in the face of federal Environmental Protection Agency standards. Students of the elementary school closest to the plant have an elevated lifetime cancer risk that’s nearly three times the maximum risk level the EPA considers acceptable. And for years, Laredo residents, more than a quarter of whom live in poverty, were never told about the dangers posed to their community.
Laredo’s case is one of many examples in a new report, co-published by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Union of Concerned Scientists, about policy decisions by state and local agencies based on manipulated science, and the need for reform. Safeguards for science in government decision-making are crucial to the health and safety of underserved communities — in fact, they are a matter of life or death.
People of color are already disproportionately likely to be exposed to air pollution at work and at home, to live near sources of environmental hazards or in areas at heightened risk from climate change, and to lack adequate healthcare coverage and job stability. Public health decisions that fly in the face of scientific evidence exacerbate these long-standing inequities.
But almost routinely, government leaders across the country manipulate and misrepresent scientific research — be it Covid-19 infection rates, the causes of climate change, or exposure levels to dangerous chemicals.
Senior officials have hidden data or even altered scientific conclusions to push for their preferred policies. Some have censored or intimidated the experts. And policymakers have ignored research they were supposed to use to protect public health and the environment, or they fabricated their own data altogether. Conflicts of interest abound. Accountability, not so much.
Protections against the politicization of science-based decision-making at the state and local level — where decisions on day-to-day public health impacts often play out — are weaker than those at the federal level.
Texas is the only state to officially reject the EPA’s years-long, peer-reviewed assessment for regulating the pollutant found in the Laredo sterilization plant. Instead, the state environmental agency — whose toxicology director at the time was a former lobbyist for the petrochemical industry — set an exposure limit that was 3,500 times above the standard recommended by the EPA. The state agency has not released its analysis to the public.
Abuses like these have dire consequences for people’s health and safety. And Latinos and Black Americans continue to bear the brunt of the burden when science is sidelined for political or financial gain. Centuries of discriminatory policies in the United States persist in entrenched racial and ethnic inequities relating to poverty and wealth, housing stability, working conditions, education, and community investment.
Take Covid-19. As the new report details, leaders across the political spectrum suppressed and manipulated data on mortality and infection rates in order to cover up mismanagement, to boost their political profile, or to lift public health restrictions well before it was considered safe to do so.
State officials withheld information about the effectiveness of mask mandates and even pressured researchers to destroy data. In one instance, the Florida surgeon general revised a state research report to make vaccines seem more dangerous. Had safeguards been in place, it’s likely that fewer people would have gotten sick. Fewer people would have died.
Disparities in living and working conditions make this especially true for Latinos. In the first months of the pandemic, Latinos were three times as likely to become infected with Covid-19 as white people in the United States. They were nearly twice as likely to die from the virus.
Latinos were overrepresented among frontline essential workers and industries that required work outside the home. Compared to non-Hispanic white Americans, they disproportionately live in crowded neighborhoods and large, often multigenerational households, placing them at higher risk of exposure.
As the nation went into lockdown, these disparities also translated into income and healthcare loss, which may have motivated people to take further risks for financial stability. In addition, exposure to misinformation contributed to lower vaccination rates among marginalized communities. Three years on, despite some progress, Latinos still experience disproportionately high Covid-19 infection, hospitalization, and death rates.
States and localities need to implement reforms to ensure the independence of scientists and the integrity of their research and data. Only two state agencies in the country have publicly available scientific integrity policies, which ensure that scientific research adheres to recognized professional standards and is free from political interference.
Most states do not explicitly require agencies to use the “best available science” in decision-making, and few have sufficient whistleblower protections for state employees to disclose dangers to health, public safety, or the environment without retribution. Such protections should be established or reinforced, and states and localities should require public access to publicly funded research and data.
In addition, state and local governments must consider the impact of proposed policies on underserved communities, improve community participation in policymaking and regulatory processes, and create complaint procedures or other channels for addressing equity concerns.
To improve community participation, policymakers should conduct community outreach about proposed policies, hold public hearings in affected areas and encourage the submission of public comments, and reduce barriers to public participation such as by providing information in Spanish and languages other than English.
With such protections in place, Laredo residents could have been spared exposure to toxic substances or at least brought about speedier reforms to protect their community.