When does a breaking point become a turning point? The point at which people get angry enough to organize against injustice drives Steve Lerner’s new book, “Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Exposure in the United States,” which follows the infuriating, shocking and inspiring story of 12 unlikely environmental activists.

These “accidental activists” live in areas originally called “sacrifice zones,” an Orwellian term originally coined in the Soviet Union to describe populated areas irrevocably polluted by nuclear fallout. In this country, communities from Florida to California suffer from pollution serious enough to be considered a major hazard to public health.

All these areas have another disturbing commonality, notes Lerner: They are largely populated by poor, minority populations. “Sacrifice Zones” is Lerner’s call to confront the “environmental racism” of a system that continues to build and maintain these pollution centers while ignoring the massive safety risks involved.

Lerner posits that the disproportionate environmental suffering of poor communities of color is not coincidental. Shockingly unequal toxic exposure rates — according to one study Lerner cites, African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where pollution poses a health risk — go largely ignored by the governments, corporations and factories that could effect change.

But in this vacuum, grassroots activists rise and organize, winning lawsuits and closing toxic sites. Lerner follows these activists from their political awakenings through their individual pushes to organize meetings, stage corporate confrontations and influence legislation. The result is an inspiring story of everyday people who, pushed too far, push back.

» Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Sun., 5 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)

Written by Express contributor Jessica Roake
Photo courtesy MIT Press