Written by Katie Wiedeman, MSW candidate, Brown School and practicum student at the Center for Community Health Partnership & Research at the Institute for Public Health
Increasingly, climate change and unhealthy environments cause negative impacts on our communities and their health. The environmental justice movement, further explored in an earlier post, is taking direct action to offset these consequences. Here in St. Louis, issues of environmental injustice are prevalent among our neighbors and communities.
The West Lake landfill in Bridgeton, a suburb of St. Louis near the airport, is host to radioactive waste from World War II. In 2010, an underground fire occurred. The potential to spread to the area containing the radioactive waste was of major concern. Such fires produce toxic gases, which are associated with a host of health symptoms reported by nearby residents, including headaches, nausea, fatigue, nosebleeds, and hair loss. While the EPA has deemed West Lake a Superfund site, meaning it is one of the most contaminated areas in the country, there has been no solid timeline provided for clean-up. The landfill is a concern for many residents, who are demanding justice.
Concerns with toxins in the environment are also present within St. Louis homes, especially for Black residents. Common household hazards, such as lead, mold, and inefficient insulation, all disproportionately impact Black St. Louisians. For example, older homes built before the 1980s, which are the majority in St. Louis, are likely to have lead paint on the walls. While some homes have had their lead paint removed, many in majority-Black neighborhoods in North St. Louis City have not. Exposure to lead, especially for children, results in poor health, including impaired brain development and learning disabilities. Especially in these areas of St. Louis where healthcare is less accessible, these environmental concerns place additional challenges on individuals and their families. Environmental justice is often framed on a large scale, but everyday environments, like our homes and city infrastructure, are just as impactful on health and wellbeing.
Several St. Louis organizations are working to forward environmental justice. Just Moms STL has been leading efforts to clean the West Lake landfill site and to communicate with EPA officials. Metropolitan Congregations United is a faith-based organization that focuses on environmental justice. Their recent campaign has focused on clear air through mobilizing voters, organizing at meetings, and public education. Here at Washington University in St. Louis, environmental justice efforts are happening both on-campus and off. Washington University is part of the Renew STL project, an initiative to expand solar power in the city and create jobs in this industry. Missouri Coalition for the Environment, in addition to their policy advocacy efforts, created a guide to relevant state legislation so that you have easily contact your legislator to show your support.
Environmental justice is a key component of health equity because toxic and dangerous environments lead to detrimental impacts on physical and mental well-being. In the path to health equity, living in a clean and safe environment is an essential piece of the puzzle. Without considering the impact of the environment and working to improve it, a vital social determinant of health is left out of the picture. We all have a role to play in ensuring that environmental wellness and health are realities for everyone – what’s yours?
This is Part II of a two-part blog series on environmental justice by this author.