(un)Just Sustainabilities online Exhibit

This online exhibit for Professor Heather Bedi’s Environmental and Social Justice class allows Dickinson College students to reflect on environmental injustices and demographic trends in their neighborhood, town, city, or state. In defining just sustainabilities, Agyeman et al. (2003) argue that social and economic inequalities across place exacerbate environmental injustices. They advocate for human equality to be central in sustainability efforts. Students explore (un) just sustainabilities in their place through a paper and a publicly exhibited zero-waste visual or audio project.

PCB contamination in the Fox River: The Disproportionate Effects








I have chosen to study my hometown, Appleton Wisconsin. I grew up walking along the Fox River, which flows directly through town. Signs line the river in popular fishing spots, warning about health hazards related to consumption of fish.

The Fox River has PCB, or poly-chlorinated biphenyl, contamination which has been released into the river over the course of many decades from the many pulp and paper mills that have historically lined the river, some just south of Appleton (ATSDR 2006). PCB contamination has been found to impact surrounding communities most directly through consumption of fish from the Fox River. Hmong, Native American, African American and Hispanic communities, have been shown to be most susceptible to contamination of PCBs through consumption. This is due to both reliance on fish as a food resource in these communities as well as less awareness of the dangers of consumption. Ingestion and exposure to PCBs can inhibit reproductive abilities, brain and immune system function, and can cause cancer. These health impacts are shown to be most potent to children (CDC). The exposure of high levels of PCBs to specific communities is an unjust sustainability because specific racial and ethnic groups are exposed to PCBs at disproportionate levels and so are disproportionately impacted by the health and financial strains caused by PCB contamination.

This is a map of Appleton and the surrounding area. The blue color represents the density of households below the poverty line, the red color represents minority population density, and the purple represents the density of linguistically-isolated households. The darkest areas are where all of these factors are most prominent. These demographic factors, based on deepest color on the map, tend to be geographically located in the same areas and so seem to be affecting the same populations.

The children of these communities are also unjustly impacted by inhibited neurological function, due to PCB contamination, which disproportionately disadvantages them cognitively. These communities also have higher rates of poverty which makes accessing treatment for potential health ramifications from PCB contamination as well as ability to choose other food sources even more challenging. Hmong populations in Appleton are also highly linguistically isolated which has been shown to inhibit awareness of PCB contamination of fish and potential health hazards, as well as limits ability to seek medical care and other necessary aid. All of these factors are interconnected and further intensify each other, clearly disproportionately harming minority communities over others. 

My visual is made out of recycled t-shirts, all of which I wore on runs with my high school cross country team. Our team had a tradition of jumping into the Fox river at the end of runs to cool off. This undoubtedly exposed us and our clothes to the PCB contaminated water. Although contamination is most likely to cause health problems when ingested, these shirts represent the everyday exposure to PCBs in the city of Appleton. I placed this representation of Appleton and the Fox River on a piece of paper that shows transportation and so ultimately affluence, to represent the choice, or lack thereof, in regard to diet and health impacts. The visual is also framed by a cut out egg carton, to represent choice surrounding food, and by pill bottle caps, to represent the cost both literally and physically that PCB contamination through consumption can cause, in the potential need for medical care. 


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