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Sudipa Chowdhury

Newark Charter, 10th grade

2024 RENEW essay contest Honorable Mention

The Inherent Right to Breathe

I glanced out through the side window of our timeworn car. “Welcome to West Chester,” the sign read as we entered downtown. Rows upon rows of picturesque townhomes, freshly bloomed maple trees, a spotlessly blue sky, and the mouth-watering smell of baked goods from cafes greeted my family as we journeyed through the city to visit one of my good friends in their newly purchased home. A few minutes later, we arrived in their neighborhood far from the rest of the city and factory districts. The community was a neatly arranged exhibit of towering suburban houses each with a well-preserved, blindingly green lawn twice the area of the houses themselves. By the time we arrived and stepped out into this new, pristine environment, I had already noted the clarity and cleanliness and care with which this neighborhood was designed, and my perception was only reinforced when I took my first breath of this fantasy land. It was almost artificial how natural, pure, and unpolluted the air was. Our hosts invited us into their mostly empty but nonetheless stunning new home, and the breath I had taken in earlier escaped from my body in response to how massive this house was. They offered water straight from the tap. There was a gleaming quality to it that convinced me I was cleansed of all impurities as I drank. Later, we went on a walk through their neighborhood. Clear ponds, lush forests behind each home, kids innocently biking on the well-kept roads. 

At the time, I must have imagined that the people in the West Chester district up in Pennsylvania were blessed to have such clean air and clean water and a perfectly spotless, undisturbed sanctuary. I had no doubt that if a community merely an hour away from my own was living so well, the people living around me, in my own state, must also be enjoying the same lifestyle. Dependable water and uncontaminated air are basic human necessities that surely every individual has available to them. Regrettably, this is not the case. Not all communities in Delaware resemble that of West Chester’s, and not all communities in Pennsylvania could even compare to that of West Chester’s. Frankly, it is disheartening how these clean, safe neighborhoods are such scarcities in the U.S. and globally. What is more prominent are the neighborhoods that lie right next to factories that radiate toxic fumes, neighborhoods with children at risk for developing lung diseases as a result of inhaling toxins, and neighborhoods consisting of people agitated by their poor quality of life. 

It has also been made evident that often low-income communities with people of color are the ones that are placed in such hazardous areas. Not only are these people put in danger, but the question also arises whether they were deliberately put in danger. A city in Delaware County known as Chester, ironically named, is a predominantly black community with a Covanta waste incinerator stationed alongside the houses. Residents consistently report “ being forced to abandon their homes adjacent to the facility, the persistent noxious odors, and high rates of asthma, particularly among children.” Even in Delaware, the community in Southbridge, known for a high percentage of people of color and high poverty levels, is positioned amongst multiple high-risk chemical factories and large pollution-emitting industrial facilities. Residents there have cancer risks 14 to 18% higher than Delaware average as well as respiratory hazards that are almost 30% higher than average. Such examples and statistics could be listed for hours on end, but simply put places like these, where the disadvantaged are made to live in life-threatening environments, are found in surplus across the nation. 

You may have noted the common denominator among all these cities: the presence of a pollution-emitting factory. Incinerators as well as power plants that use fossil fuels and are notorious for being the driving factors of climate change. Not only do they deplete Earth’s limited natural resources, but they simultaneously degrade the quality of Earth’s atmosphere by emitting toxic chemicals that trap heat and in turn warm the planet. While everyone is indirectly affected by these factories through global warming – perhaps summers feel slightly warmer or winters in December are no longer white – it cannot compare to how these factories directly endanger poor communities of color. Not only are they exposed to toxins on a daily basis, giving rise to a multitude of lung diseases, but the health effects of global warming, such as heat strokes or dehydration, particularly impact these people. In poor socioeconomic conditions, residents in these communities often do not have access to quality healthcare and are therefore forced to suffer through as the factories continue to run and continue to profit. 

While I may not know anyone in these communities personally, I am conscious enough about their lives, their struggles, and their overlooked complaints to declare that they should not be made to suffer any longer. Rectification of this issue so many people face, whether it be in your own community, in your state, or in your country, requires acknowledgement. Acknowledgement of the injustices committed against low-income communities and against communities of color. Acknowledgment that the instruments of destruction that are the chemical-emitting factories are not just coincidently found next to disadvantaged communities; it is intentional, it is unethical, it is unjust. If we continue to believe that the statistics are mere exaggerations or that everyone is equally affected by global warming, we will never be able to aid those that are in serious need of clean, breathable air. In truth, accepting the existence of environmental injustices is the first step towards environmental justice. Once it is made clear to everyone that there are community members who are struggling more than others – members who are denied the inherent right to breathe, the right to clean water, the right to a safe environment – that is when definitive initiatives can be taken to address the issue. While local governments have the legal powers to enact such initiatives, we as youth have the power to make just as much change by spreading awareness of these injustices and making sure that our local representatives are properly informed and are tackling this problem. If you desire more direct action, visit these communities, hear the stories of these people, listen to what they have to say about the prejudices they face, but do not stop there. Give these people a voice and retail their stories to your own communities so that no one can deny the truth of their situation. 

If the majority recognizes these injustices and proper action is taken, I truly believe that all undervalued neighborhoods can be reformed for the better. Perhaps the facilities responsible for causing such large-scale hazards will develop stricter regulations or be completely repurposed to promote cleaner, more sustainable practices. Maybe then, everyone can proudly claim that they practice the inherent right to breathe clean air and that they feel safe and comfortable where they live. It may be wishful thinking, but perhaps one day cities like Chester and Southbridge among other poorer neighborhoods will turn into beautiful communities like West Chester. In such a world, no one, regardless of race, gender, or position in society, will be harmed by unsustainable practices; rather, they will remain content living in well-maintained, healthy environments – that is true environmental justice. 


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