Environmental Justice and Health Equity

Frank Bencomo-Suarez
University of Louisville Resilience Justice Project

Environmental justice recognizes that some communities are composed of marginalized racial/ethnic, low-income/poor, rural, immigrant/refugee, and indigenous populations that live in areas disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards, unhealthy land uses, psychosocial stressors, and historical traumas. All of these conditions drive health inequities in their communities when compared to more privileged groups of people. These communities tend to be underserved by public and private entities that create and enforce environmental hazards. These communities also tend to be under-represented in decision-making processes.

The environmental justice movement grew out of movements for racial justice. As the United States prioritized environmental health with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970, communities of color raised concerns about then-undocumented disparate conditions; however, they were often ignored or sidelined. The EPA would not explicitly address disparities in environmental health in earnest until 1990 with the creation of the Environmental Equity Work Group, which led to the establishment of the Office of Environmental Justice (originally the Office of Environmental Equity) and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) in 1992 and 1993, respectively.

Conflicting land use- Photo Credit- Frank Bencomo

Despite the creation of these federal regulatory departments, health inequity resulting from environmental injustices still exists due to structural racism and discrimination in planning. Suburbanization, discriminatory housing policies, segregation (residential, economic, occupational), massive highway construction, deindustrialization, and poor zoning have all contributed to inequitable development in and across U.S. landscapes. Uneven planning and development have resulted from common exclusionary practices and policies over the years (i.e., Jim Crow, exclusionary zoning, racial covenants, redlining).

These practices have led to marginalized communities living in areas that suffer from a lack of healthy, fresh, and culturally appropriate foods; quality infrastructure; access to transportation; and access to green space—all environmental variables considered to negatively impact the health of local residents. Furthermore, exposure to harmful land uses and infrastructure has been linked to increased cancer and respiratory illness and a decreased overall sense of well-being. They also worsen comorbid conditions such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, neurological and psychiatric disorders, and impair maternal and child health. Infants and children are especially vulnerable to adverse environmental health outcomes because of their unique biological vulnerabilities and age-related patterns of exposure.

Land Use by % of Mill Creek

For example, in Louisville, KY, people are dying in western Louisville an average of 10 years before than the average Louisville resident. Western Louisville’s air, water, and soil are highly toxic and rank amongst the worst of any American city. This particular section of the city’s toxicity stems from planning inequities which have allowed for incompatible land uses next to one another. As seen on the map below – industries that use and emit toxic substances are permitted to operate right next to residential neighborhoods. Neighborhoods near the industries are twice as likely to have either asthma or high blood pressure, four times more likely to have COPD, seven times more likely to have heart disease; and four times more likely to have poor physical health.Health Inequity blog- map of Cancer Risk from Toxic Air Polluters in West End, Louisville, KY

An environmental justice framework seeks to address these issues by considering the cumulative impact of the combined, incremental effects of human activity, and their consequences for the human health of the local community. These considerations must then be incorporated into a wide range of policymaking and decision making.

EJ recognizes that certain toxic industries are part of modern society but also that their harms should be distributed across the wider population as a whole instead of concentrating these burdens on already marginalized communities. Environmental justice also advocates for the prevention and elimination of these toxic risks in our communities. EJ can help these communities by respecting the experiences of communities most impacted by environmental inequality and promoting their ability to speak for themselves and supporting them by providing them with information, resources, scientific collaborations, and spaces for networking/sharing to document and address health inequities so as to foster meaningful participation and turn them into their own most effective lobbyists.

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