First, the butterflies disappeared. Then, the family dog died; and then the neighbors did, too.

But Marquita Bradshaw’s biggest loss of those adolescent days was probably her great-grandmother. Susie Hall died in 1995 after developing uterine and kidney cancers.

“We lost our matriarch. … She was the kind of person that would cook enough Sunday dinner for the whole church and the neighborhood too,” Bradshaw said.

She attributes her great-grandmother’s death, like many of those in their South Memphis neighborhood, to environmental injustice. Bradshaw grew up within walking distance of the Defense Distribution Depot Memphis Tennessee, an Army surplus site that was active between 1942 and 1989. At the site, the Department of Defense dumped hazardous waste, including German mustard gas bombs, blistering chemical agents and medical waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency deemed the depot a Superfund site in 1992, placing it on their National Priorities List, a designation recognizing it as a known site of contamination where the EPA will take corrective action. The agency’s profile of the site acknowledges that chemicals including arsenic, lead, chromium and nickel have contaminated groundwater there. Of 19 active Superfund sites in the state listed on the EPA’s website, over a third are in Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis.

Arsenic is associated with increased risk of skin and bladder cancers, and has also been linked to cancers of the lung, digestive tract, liver, kidney, and lymphatic and hematopoietic systems. Lead is regarded as likely cancer-causing by federal and international agencies. It targets the nervous system, resulting in decreased learning, memory and attention, and weakness in fingers, wrists, or ankles. It can also cause anemia, kidney damage, increased blood pressure, miscarriage and damage to the reproductive system. Long-term chromium exposure can cause effects such as damage to the liver, kidney, circulatory and nerve tissues, and skin irritation. Exposure to nickel compounds can increase the risk of nasal and lung cancers.

Read the full article about environmental racism and activism by Daja E. Henry at The 19th.