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Scholar honored for scientific work

Dan Brombach | Monday, February 20, 2012

The Notre Dame faculty added another award to its collection of accolades when Kristin Shrader-Frechette, professor of philosophy and biological sciences, was honored with the Jean Mayo Global Citizenship Award in recognition of her body of work in both global health and pollution-related environmental justice.

Along with a group of Notre Dame students and several faculty members, Shrader-Frechette works to combat environmental injustice in poor and minority communities, she said.

“Environmental injustice occurs whenever poor people or minorities experience disproportionately heavier pollution burdens, as indeed they do throughout the world,” Shrader-Frechette said.

She and her team provide free scientific and ethical assistance to poor communities to improve quality of life and serve as the community’s voice and advocate, Shrader-Frechette said.

“Our goal in this environmental justice work is to save lives, especially the lives of children, to ensure use of the best science to analyze pollution problems and to help ensure that poor people and minorities can exercise their rights to know about, and to consent to, pollution risks,” Shrader-Frechette said.

Although she is on sabbatical this semester, Shrader-Frechette said she is currently engaged in three unique pro-bono environmental justice projects around the world. She is studying the fallout from radiation leakage after the earthquake and nuclear reactor disaster on children in Fukushima, Japan, the effects of a hazardous waste dump on Native Americans in upstate New York and the harmful impact of a Superfund site on an African-American community on Chicago’s South Side.

Shrader-Frechette said she and her colleagues use concrete evidence of environmental injustice to provide victimized communities with the opportunity to stand up to wealthy, powerful polluters.

“By providing detailed scientific and public-health evidence and assessments about specific health threats that a given community faces, then sharing these results with the members of the community, often we can help empower them so that they can force noxious facilities to clean up and to obey the law,” she said.

Despite the University’s relatively small student population, Notre Dame has far more students who are passionate about and willing to engage in this kind of environmental justice work, Shrader-Frechette said.

“Every year I find at least five times more students here than at large state schools who want to do this work,” she said.  “Notre Dame’s incredible students make all this pro-bono work possible.  I love them.”

Shrader-Frechette added she hopes the award will bring increased recognition to her cause and help to combat public ignorance of environmental injustice.

“A major current problem is that people are often unaware that poor people and minorities are the ‘canaries in the coal mines’ of pollution,” she said.

Although it may not impact the lives of most people, Shrader-Frechette said all people have a responsibility to fight environmental injustice.

“Stopping environmental injustice is our duty because we unfairly benefit, both medically and economically, when we [perhaps unintentionally] impose our environmental burdens on poor people and minorities, especially children,” she said. “If we don’t work to help stop this injustice, we are part of the problem.”

Shrader-Frechette said being recognized for her work is a truly humbling experience.

“My only concern, after receiving the award, is that many Notre Dame faculty members deserve it more than I do,” Shrader-Frechette said.