Environmental Justice And Health

Environmental problems and their associated costs are often passed along to the people living in disadvantaged social contexts. Poor people and minorities in urban areas not only work in the most dangerous jobs, as mentioned above, but also live in the most polluted neighborhoods where their children are exposed to various environmental toxins in play areas and in their homes (Bryant and Mohai, 1992; Bullard, 1994).

In a report focused on environmental risk factors and health, the Institute of Medicine (Institute of Medicine, 1999) confirmed that low-income and minority communities are exposed to greater levels of pollution than more affluent white communities. Further, race, independent of SES, impacts the distribution of air pollution, the location of landfills and incinerators, abandoned toxic waste dumps, and lead poisoning in children (Bullard and Johnson, 2000; Pirkle, et al., 1994). The greatest health risks for individuals living in disadvantaged communities comes from exposure to water pollution, toxins, solid and hazardous waste, raw sewage, toxic releases from industries, pesticides, air pollution, and lead (Bullard and Johnson, 2000). Pirkle and colleagues (1994) found higher rates of blood lead levels in black and Mexican-American children in comparison to white children (Pirkle, et al., 1994). This study, an analysis of the NHANES III, also revealed that at every income level, black children suffer from lead poisoning at more than twice the rate of white children.

Air pollution, another environmental threat, has been identified as a risk factor for hospitalization for lung and heart disease, as well as respiratory disorder (Arif, et al., 2003; Zanobetti, et al., 2000). In general, results from multiple community sites suggest a positive relationship between outdoor air pollution/smog and asthma (Clean Air Task Force, 2002; National Campaign Against Dirty Power, 1999). Outdoor air pollution has been implicated as a major trigger in increased respiratory-related emergency room visits and hospital admissions (Bullard, et al., 2000; National Campaign Against Dirty Power., 1999). Urban metropolitan areas, such as Atlanta, Georgia, have been found to be repeatedly in violation of the Clean Air Task Force, with cars, trucks and buses being the greatest source of air pollution (Bullard, et al., 2000).

The reason why minority groups, particularly blacks and latinos, are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of environmental contaminants is not an accident, but rather a function of their position in the structure of our society (Fitzpatrick and LaGory, 2000). Minority groups are more likely to live in communities with weak political organization, and hence, are unable to fight back the location of toxic dumps and landfill in their communities (Harvey, 1997).

Environmental justice focuses on the rights of individuals to be equally protected from environmental degradation by emphasizing the utilization of congressional acts, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fair housing act of 1968, and the Voting rights act of 1965. The preferred environmental justice strategy focuses on a public health model of prevention, specifically the elimination of threat before the occurrence of harm, and shifting the burden of proof from the racial/ethnic minorities to polluters and dischargers who act in a harmful and discriminatory manner (Bullard and Johnson, 2000). Advocates of the environmental justice framework argue for requirements that force corporations and businesses applying for operating permits (e.g., landfills, incinerators, refineries, chemical plants, etc.) to provide evidence that their operations are not harmful to human health and will not disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities and other protected groups. Affected communities rarely have the resources to secure and maintain the legal support, experts, and doctors needed for protection from and/or removal of environmental threats.

Social and environmental scientists involved in environmental justice are making efforts to challenge procedural equity (i.e., the standardized application of governing rules, regulations, and enforcement), geographic equity (i.e. spatial configuration of communities and their proximity to unwanted land uses and noxious facilities), and social equity (i.e., assessment of how race/ethnicity, class, culture, and political power affect environmental decision making) (Bullard, 2004).

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