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This form of bias is getting a closer look right now.

By Claire Gillespie
November 30, 2020
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Racism goes much further than police brutality and the criminal justice system. When systemic racism and environmental health issues merge, it’s known as environmental racism—a form of racism whereby communities of color are more likely to be burdened with environmental hazards, such as toxic waste and industrial pollution. That in turn puts residents at greater risk of illnesses linked to unhealthy water, housing, and air.

“Pollution is not race neutral,” Colleen Callahan, deputy director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, tells Health. “Instead, race matters in the distribution of environmental hazards, dirty air, and polluted soil and water. Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color (BIPOC) systematically experience greater environmental hazards, and fewer quality parks and other positive environmental benefits, compared to white communities.”

When was environmental racism first identified?

The environmental justice movement first emerged in the early 1980s, when communities living near pollution called attention to worse health outcomes among residents. “Overburdened communities began to receive national attention for their struggles against inequitable siting of polluting facilities,” Callahan explains. “Most notably, activists protested the dumping of millions of pounds of toxic soil in Warren County, the North Carolina county with the highest percentage of African Americans in the state.” 

What does environmental racism look like? 

Environmental racism leads to disparities in all aspects of life. “Health disparities, education disparities, economic disparities, and more are linked to where we live––our environment,” Callahan says.

Such inequity is supported by a huge body of research. A 2012 article in Environmental Health Perspectives found that overall levels of exposure to particulate matter (such as acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil and dust particles) were higher for people of color than white people. A 2016 study published in Environment International found an association between long-term exposure to a pollutant and racial segregation. And in 2018, a report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air than white people, and people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than people living above the poverty line. 

“Environmental racism refers both to the systematic exclusion of communities of color from decision-making that affects their health and well-being, and to the disproportionately high burden those communities bear from environmental harms as a result of that historic (and often, ongoing) exclusion,” Ihab Mikati, who was lead researcher/author on the 2018 EPA study, tells Health. 

According to Mikati, who is currently in the final year of his Juris Doctor degree at NYU School of Law, the way these environmental harms are distributed across the population is largely down to choices made by society at large––as well as who is at the table making those choices. 

Climate change has further increased the burden on low-income communities of color, Callahan says. “This can be seen in the Los Angeles region, where low-income communities of color are disproportionately affected by extreme heat,” she explains. “The reasons are multi-faceted and speak to both hotter temperatures in certain neighborhoods and less ability to adapt to higher temperatures. The risk is made worse when low-income residents are less likely to own or be able to afford to operate air conditioners.” 

What are the specific health effects of environmental racism?

There are many, including elevated rates of premature births, asthma, cancer, and other health effects made more likely with, or exacerbated by, various types of pollution.  

A review published in the Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health in 2016 found that racial discrimination, including environmental and housing conditions, is a significant risk factor for adverse birth outcomes, such as premature birth, low birth weight, and infant mortality.

Some parts of the US are known for health disparities caused by environmental racism. Take Reserve, Louisiana, for example—a predominantly Black community known as “Cancer Alley.” A higher risk of cancer exists in Reserve compared to neighboring white communities due to the dense concentration of petrochemical plants in the area, as explained in a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The researchers found that the cancer risk was 12–16% higher in Black communities than in white communities.

Mikati notes that you can readily see the impacts of environmental racism just from the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing out that the EPA study showed that African Americans were disproportionately likely to live near facilities emitting air pollution. The higher prevalence of asthma in the Black population—which appears to be connected to choices made about where to locate industry—has made coronavirus particularly dangerous in those communities.

How do we tackle environmental racism? 

It’s not enough for the government to simply ease existing environmental disparities, researchers say, and to reverse environmental inequalities, policies can’t be race neutral. “Communities of color and low-income households disproportionately harmed by pollution from our fossil fueled economy should also disproportionately benefit from the transition to a clean economy,” Callahan says.

She sees a key opportunity for President-elect Biden to rebuild the economy through climate investments. “This could mean increasing the cost on companies for polluting, and directly passing on that money to ordinary Americans who will experience higher gasoline, electricity, and other costs.”

Other ways to rebuild the economy, combat the climate crisis, reduce local pollution, and advance health outcomes for everybody include programs that fund tree planting, parks, solar panels, and zero-emission transportation for low-income communities.

Mikati says he would be “honored” if the EPA study he led helped bring about political change. He points out that there was already a huge body of proof highlighting the issue of environmental racism.

“When an affluent, white community doesn't want an incinerator in their backyard, do you think they need an EPA study linking incinerators to lung disease? No,” he says. “They simply say, ‘I don't want that here. I don't like it. It doesn't make me feel good, it doesn't make my children feel good.’ And that's enough. They have control over their lives. What I hope for is a future where people, all people of the world, have that control and freedom over their lives in equal measure.” 

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