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Publisher's Summary

A "powerful and indispensable book" (Gerald Markowitz) on the devastating consequences of environmental racism - and what we can do to remedy its toxic effects on marginalized communities.

Did you know...

  • Middle-class African American households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than those of very poor white households with incomes below $10,000.
  • When swallowed, a lead-paint chip no larger than a fingernail can send a toddler into a coma - one-tenth of that amount will lower his IQ.
  • Nearly two of every five African American homes in Baltimore are plagued by lead-based paint. Almost all of the 37,500 Baltimore children who suffered lead poisoning between 2003 and 2015 were African American.

From injuries caused by lead poisoning to the devastating effects of atmospheric pollution, infectious disease, and industrial waste, Americans of color are harmed by environmental hazards in staggeringly disproportionate numbers. This systemic onslaught of toxic exposure and institutional negligence causes irreparable physical harm to millions of people across the country-cutting lives tragically short and needlessly burdening our health care system. But these deadly environments create another insidious and often overlooked consequence: robbing communities of color, and America as a whole, of intellectual power. 

The 1994 publication of The Bell Curve and its controversial thesis catapulted the topic of genetic racial differences in IQ to the forefront of a renewed and heated debate. Now, in A Terrible Thing to Waste, award-winning science writer Harriet A. Washington adds her incisive analysis to the fray, arguing that IQ is a biased and flawed metric, but that it is useful for tracking cognitive damage. She takes apart the spurious notion of intelligence as an inherited trait, using copious data that instead point to a different cause of the reported African American-white IQ gap: environmental racism - a confluence of racism and other institutional factors that relegate marginalized communities to living and working near sites of toxic waste, pollution, and insufficient sanitation services. She investigates heavy metals, neurotoxins, deficient prenatal care, bad nutrition, and even pathogens as chief agents influencing intelligence to explain why communities of color are disproportionately affected -- and what can be done to remedy this devastating problem. 

Featuring extensive scientific research and Washington's sharp, lively reporting, A Terrible Thing to Waste is sure to outrage, transform the conversation, and inspire debate.

©2019 Harriet A. Washington (P)2019 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"A Terrible Thing to Waste is a powerful and indispensable book for anyone who cares about a just and healthy future for all Americans. Harriet Washington asks the critical questions that get at the heart of racism and inequality in health, income, social welfare and power in 21st century America." (Gerald Markowitz, author of Lead Wars and distinguished professor, John Jay College, CUNY)

"In her groundbreaking new book, A Terrible Thing to Waste, award-winning science writer and bioethicist Harriet Washington explores how environmental racism damages young minds, particularly the minds of impoverished African American children who are exposed inordinately to toxins and pathogens in marginalized communities. She writes lucidly of how pollutants such as heavy metals and neurotoxins injure developing brains and recounts vividly case after case of the devastating cost to human brains and bodies. As she demolishes racist notions of inherited intelligence, she describes the medical consequences of horrific environmental catastrophes that have largely been forgotten or overlooked. Revelatory and compelling, Harriet Washington's A Terrible Thing to Waste is the Silent Spring for the 21st century." (Robin Lindley, JD, Features Editor, History News Network)

"It's amazing how far you can get if you just study the data. And have a keen analytical mind. And are a gifted reporter. With a sense of social justice. By which I mean, if you are Harriet Washington. She methodically indicts environmental racism and its catastrophic effects, particularly on the cognitive abilities of America's children, a reminder that what we're told is immutable - our social conditions, our 'intelligence' - is nothing of the kind. The news she brings is grim, but she leaves the reader feeling not paralyzed by despair but determined to act." (Randy Cohen, host of Person Place Thing and original author of New York Times Magazine's The Ethicist column)

What listeners say about A Terrible Thing to Waste

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Wish this was read by a black WOMAN

I found this really jarring to listen to. Ron Butler is an excellent narrator, but this is written by a black WOMAN. This isn't a piece of fiction where the narrator needs to assume multiple voices of multiple genders to tell a story.

I was only able to make it through the first hour or so - hearing a male voice speaking a woman's story was too jarring. I am now reading the paper copy and attempting to return the audiobook.

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Extremely Informational

Should be mandatory reading for any parent, most importantly parents of African American children. We must understand how the system of racism affects all..well racism and financial greed.

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Read this now

Everyone should read this. What we don’t know can literally kill us. Especially people in minority communities.

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Washington does it again!

This book, no matter what race its readers are, touches on the treatment of minorities. African Americans continue to be targeted in unimaginable ways. The warfare will never end. Awareness is key!

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ABLEIST

THIS BOOK IS ABLEIST AND PERPETUATES SYSTEMIC ABLEISM. VERY BIGOTED AND HARMFUL. STIGMATIZES THE EXISTENCE OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE.

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  • 12-18-20

Great writing, pleasant voice, very informative

Harriet A. Washington is an outstanding medical writer - her view on this topic was very insightful

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  • N. J. Keely
  • 02-07-21

Upsetting but not exactly shocking!

Wow, this book was full of things I did not know about & really opened my eyes and made me decide to investigate the potential toxins inside my own home. Also disgusted that so many of these environmental disasters happened in my home state of Alabama and I had never heard of them!

I did question one reference to something from the EWG - because I’d always thought this organisation to be a bit dubious in its claims, but I need to investigate this a bit more. Overall, an enlightening book and I particularly love the last chapter giving detailed advice on what we can do to help fix this ongoing problem.