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
In order to better address health outcomes and inequities, improving the environment is necessary. Due to historical and on-going injustices, unhealthy environments disproportionately impact communities of color and, in turn, their physical and mental health. The environmental justice movement directly acknowledges this relationship and works to remedy it. As defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, “environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
The environmental justice movement has been framed by the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and their 17 Principles of Environmental Justice. These principles encompass several ideas that are especially relevant to health, such as the right of victims of environmental injustices to receive quality healthcare, an end to the creation of toxic materials, and the right to a healthy workplace. These principles are still helpful to reference today as the movement for environmental justice continues.
Examples of environmental injustice are found across the United States and are tied to health inequities in those areas. Many of these communities occupy their geographic area because of historical discrimination, such as segregating Black people from living in certain neighborhoods and the forced relocation of Indigenous people from their land. That historical framework has set the foundation for their intensified experiences of climate change and increased likelihood of living near toxic sites.
- For one, over half of those living near hazardous waste are people of color. For example, in the Grays Ferry neighborhood near Philadelphia, a local refinery has been tied to increased air pollution in the nearby area, putting residents at risk for several health issues, including asthma, cancer, and increased mortality from COVID-19.
- Indigenous Americans, due to forced relocation and historical inequities, occupy land that has suffered harsh changes due to climate change, including extreme heat and increased occurrences of drought and wildfire. These environmental challenges exacerbate pre-existing health conditions, such as asthma and heart disease. As Indigenous Americans have high rates of these conditions and face other difficulties, like poor healthcare access on reservations, climate change has caused many health-related impacts in these communities.
- People living in U.S. Pacific territories, especially Indigenous groups, face unique concerns due to their proximity to coastlines and rising sea levels. As a result, communities there have seen health impacts such as water-related illnesses, food safety issues, and negative mental health due to losing traditional land and cultural practices.
These are just a few examples of the ways that climate change and toxic environments further intensify existing health disparities among communities of color.
Learning about environmental justice and its connections to health, especially for communities of color, is crucial. The environment impacts all of our lives and the causes that we are passionate about supporting. As we work for health equity, the role of the environment must be considered and included in our efforts to improve health for all. Activism surrounding climate change and clean environments is health equity work! The following national resources are helpful places to explore for more information:
- Principles of Environmental Justice
- WE ACT for Environmental Justice
- Climate Justice Alliance
- Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool
- US Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Justice
The issue of environmental justice is also active around St. Louis, which will be explored in part two.