An Interagency Approach to Address Environmental Justice and Health Concerns

Environmental justice struggles, which are often rooted in local conflicts and policy decisions, made their way to the White House on February 11, 1994, when President William J. Clinton signed the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, “Federal Action to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations,” ushering in a new era in the Environmental Justice Movement. Yet, after more than a decade and a half, the Executive Order has not been fully implemented.  Low income persons and people of color still face more than their fair share of environmental health threats in their homes, schools, parks and playgrounds, neighborhoods, and workplace.

In September 2010, EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair, Nancy Sutley, reconvened the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJ IWG), an entity created under Executive Order 12898, in a historic meeting, the first such gathering in more than a decade, held at the White House. The meeting, attended by five cabinet members, highlight the federal government’s dedication to ensuring all Americans have strong federal protection from environmental and health hazards.

The EJ IWG agreed to hold monthly EJ IWG meetings, including assigning senior officials from each Agency to coordinate EJ activities; organize regional listening sessions in early 2011; hold follow-up EJ IWG Principals Meetings in April and September 2011; each Agency will be tasked to develop or update their EJ strategy by September 2011; and plan a White House forum for EJ leaders and stakeholders on Environmental Justice.

The White House EJ Forum is set for Wednesday December 15, 2010.  The compressed time (each speaker has about two minutes) and complexity of issues covered make the one-day Forum’s outcome far from certain.  Nevertheless, the event will bring together several hundred environmental justice community leaders, state, local and tribal government officials, cabinet members, and other senior Federal officials for a discussion on creating a healthy and sustainable environment for all Americans.  The gathering also offers an opportunity — though limited — for environmental justice leaders who are lucky enough to make their way to Washington to speak with officials from Federal departments and agencies who are engaged in environmental justice efforts.  For some grassroots leaders, this will mark the first time in more than a decade this has happened.

Most Impacted Speaking for Themselves

The Environmental Justice Movement has always emphasized prevention and precaution.  Its framework expanded the concept of environment to include “where we live, work, play, and learn as well as the physical and natural world.”  The movement was founded by people of color in response to environmental injustice — largely toxics and environmental health threats in communities of color.  Over the years, the movement expanded to become a multi-ethnic, multi-issue movement — taking on issues ranging from food security, green jobs, smart growth, clean and renewable energy, and climate justice.

A core founding principle of the movement is “people must speak for themselves.” This principle aided the movement to grow new leaders from communities most impacted by pollution and environmental health threats.  The White House Forum on Environmental Justice will no doubt miss some key “voices” from the nation’s most vulnerable communities — leaders who have limited resources and do not have discretionary funds to fly to Washington, DC — even for a high-level meeting at the White House.

Eliminating environmental and health disparities has always been a top priority of the Environmental Justice Movement.  Achieving this goal will make us a much stronger nation as a whole.  As the U.S. becomes more diverse and moves toward becoming a majority people of color nation in coming decades, erasing these disparities is not something that should be ignored or given mere lip service. It will take hard work, dedication, and years of commitment to dismantle the apparatus that reproduces and institutionalizes inequality.

Health Matters
Built Environment and Health

The built environment, infrastructure, and environmental quality all have a direct impact on our health and wellbeing. All built environments are not created equal.  Communities that ensure access to quality services that are designed to promote good physical and psychological well being, and that are protective of the natural and physical environment are essential for health equity. Environmental justice groups are working with planners, policy makers, and other practitioners to reshape the built environment to improve individual and community health outcomes.

Social Determinants of Health and Well Being

Healthy places and healthy people are highly correlated. The poorest of the poor within the United States have the worst health and live in the most degraded environments.  Local and national environmental justice and health equity groups have aligned themselves to challenges factors in the social environment that contribute to, or detract from, the health of individuals and communities. In general, movement leaders have adopted a community health model rather than a medical model of health — with the ultimate goal of creating healthy places and healthy people.

Healthy Environment as an Essential Human Right

Many environmental justice advocates adopt the principle that the right to live in a healthy, safe and clean environment is an essential human right of all Americans. Since environmental and public health threats are not randomly distributed, with low-income and people of color on the frontline of environmental assault, equal enforcement and equal protection have become major civil rights subjects of litigation.

Merger of Green Buildings and Healthy Schools

Over the last decade, we have seen the convergence of the Green Building Movement, which typically focused on energy efficiency and resource conservation, and the Healthy Schools Movement, which seeks high performance school design/construction consistent with children’s needs for healthy environments, greening existing schools, and environmental public health for children who are disproportionately affected by environmental exposures in “sick schools.”

Environmental Justice and Reproductive Justice

Women of color have provided the essential leadership for framing the intersection of environmental justice and reproductive justice through a public health and racial equity lens.  They make up the majority of the leaders in the U.S. grassroots environmental justice organizations that are working to make people, products, communities, and ecosystems healthier. Environmental justice/reproductive justice organizing is timely as new findings link toxic products, chemicals, and pollutants to the health of children — evidence that shows children are exposed to a host of dangerous chemicals while still in their mother’s womb.

Race Matters
Applying a Racial Equity Lens

Race does not cause illness, racism does.  Race still underlies and interpenetrates with other factors in explaining much of the location of environmental degradation and the socio-spatial layout of residential amenities in our cities, suburbs, rural area, and metropolitan regions, including the quality of schools, the location of job centers, housing patterns, streets and highway configuration, and commercial development. More than 100 studies now link racism to worse health.  More than 200 environmental studies have shown race and class disparities.

Creating “Toxic-Free” Neighborhood

A growing number of environmental justice activists and advocates have undertaken initiatives and partnerships, some with government, to create “toxic-free” neighborhoods, improve access to housing, healthy schools, transportation, health care, parks and green space, healthy foods, green jobs, and other services, and dismantle artificial and discriminatory barriers to healthy, livable, and sustainable environments where they “live, work, learn, and play.”  This holistic approach to environmentalism has taken root from coast to coast and is now embraced by a broad cross-section of the American society.

Mapping Vulnerability

Race maps closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability. Numerous studies show people of color are concentrated in or near communities with abandoned hazardous waste sites and polluting industries which often follow the “path of least resistance,” contributing to many communities becoming environmental “sacrifice zones.” For many polluting industries, it is a “race to the bottom,” where land, labor and lives are cheap. The creation of environmental “sacrifice zones” is viewed as the price of doing business. Vulnerable communities, populations often fall between the regulatory cracks — becoming “invisible” communities.

Differential Treatment and Response

Not only are people of color differentially impacted by toxic contamination, they can expect different treatment from the government.  Generally, it takes longer for sites in communities of color to get listed and cleaned up when compared to sites in white communities.  Polluters also receive stiffer penalties in white communities than in communities of color — contributing to environmental health disparities.

Toxic Wastes and Race

Racial and socio-economic disparities in the location of the nation’s hazardous waste facilities are geographically widespread throughout the country.  People of color in 2007 were more concentrated in areas with commercial hazardous sites than in 1987. Race continues to be a significant independent predictor of commercial hazardous waste facility locations when socio-economic and other non-racial factors are taken into account. People of color make up the majority (56%) of those living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities, nearly double the percentage in areas beyond two miles (30%). People of color make up a much larger (over two-thirds) majority (69%) in neighborhoods with clustered facilities.

Siting disparities are widespread. Nine out of ten EPA regions have racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste sites.  Forty of 44 states (90%) with hazardous waste facilities have disproportionately high percentages of people of color in host neighborhoods, on average about two times greater than the percentages in non-host areas (44% vs. 23%).  Host neighborhoods in an overwhelming majority of the 44 states with hazardous waste sites have disproportionately high percentages of Hispanics (35 states), African Americans (38 states), and Asians/Pacific Islanders (27 states).  Host neighborhoods of 105 of 149 metropolitan areas with hazardous waste sites (70%) have disproportionately high percentages of people of color, and 46 of these metro areas (31%) have majority people of color host neighborhoods.

Poverty and Pollution

Poverty and pollution are intricately linked.  Poverty impacts health because it determines how much resources poor people have and defines the amount of environmental risks they will be exposed to in their immediate environment. Persons of low socio-economic status are disproportionately impacted and are particularly concentrated in low-wealth neighborhoods with the greatest number of health threats, including lead poisoning, hazardous waste facilities, and other polluting facilities.

Place Matters
Wrong Side of the Tracks

Place still matters. One of the most important indicators of an individual’s health is one’s street address or neighborhood. Residents who physically live on the “wrong side of the tracks” are subjected to elevated environmental health threats. Place also limits access to health care.

Land Use Zoning

Local land-use and zoning policies are major culprits in the disproportionate environmental and health burdens borne by low-income and people of color in the United States.  With or without zoning, deed restrictions, or other land-use devices, various groups are unequally able to protect their environmental interests.  More often than not, a disproportionate share of low-income and people residential neighborhoods are “zoned for garbage,” deemed compatible with industrial use, shortchanged in the neighborhood protection game.  No amount of zoning has insulated the most vulnerable communities from the negative health impacts of industrial pollution.

Threats to Fenceline Communities

Serious questions remain whether the current environmental protection framework can protect the health of residents who live fenceline with polluting industries. In reality, polluting facilities do not make good neighbors.  While “fences make good neighbors,” pollution threats do not stop at the fenceline.

Pollution Matters
Living with More Pollution.

People of color and poor people live with more pollution than the rest of the nation. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. African Americans in 19 states, Latinos in 12 states, and Asians in 7 states were more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where pollution poses the greatest health danger; residents of the at-risk neighborhoods were generally poorer and less educated, and unemployment rates in those districts were nearly 20 percent higher than the national average.  Middle-income African Americans (households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000) live in neighborhoods on average that are more polluted than the average neighborhood in which white households with incomes below $1,000 live — suggesting that lower-income whites have greater geographic mobility to escape polluted neighborhoods than higher income African Americans.

Tracking Toxic Pollution from Companies to Communities

In April 2009, a team of environmental justice scholars released a groundbreaking study that tracked pollution from individual companies to specific communities. They introduced a new concept of “corporate environmental justice” performance scorecard, a measure based on the human health impacts from toxic air pollution released by a company and whether people of color and low-income persons bear a larger share in particular states, metropolitan areas, cities, and neighborhoods.  Nationwide, the most polluted places tend to have significantly higher-than-average percentages of people of color.  In examining the top ten companies on the “Toxic 100” list that have the highest share of people of color in their toxic score, people of color bear more than half of the human health impacts from the companies’ toxic air releases.  The scorecard is a new tool that can be used to promote informal regulations and corporate responsibility.

Toxic Neighborhoods

Millions of Americans living in nearly 600 neighborhoods across the United States are breathing concentrations of toxic air pollutants that put them at a much greater risk of contracting cancer.

Toxic Housing for the Poor

Over 870,000 of the 1.9 million (46 percent) housing units for poor families and children, inhabited by people of color, sit within about a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the EPA.

Toxics Near Schools

In 2008, air quality at 435 schools in 34 states appears to pose a health threat. Only three percent of the 127,800 public, private, and parochial schools are within a mile of a long-term monitor set up to detect hazardous air pollutants.

Sick School Buildings

Poor air quality in schools has been linked to higher absenteeism and increased respiratory ailments, lower teacher and staff productivity, lower student motivation, slower learning, lower test scores, increased medical costs, and lowered lifelong achievement and earnings. Poor children in poor schools face the highest health risk from “sick schools.” People of color comprise about one-third of the nation’s population. However, students of color make up about 45 percent of children attending “sick schools.”  Up to one-half of the nation’s 125,000 schools have problems with indoor environmental air quality.

Rising Asthma Rates

Asthma is one of the nation’s most common and costly diseases. An estimated 20 million Americans suffer from asthma (1 in 15 Americans).  Asthma cost Americans nearly $18 billion each year. Asthma is slightly more prevalent among African Americans than whites. However, African Americans are three times more likely to be hospitalized from, and die from, asthma. African American Women asthma mortality is more than 2.5 times higher than white women. Racial and ethnic differences in asthma prevalence, morbidity and mortality are highly correlated with poverty, urban air quality, indoor allergens, and lack of patient education and inadequate medical care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that asthma accounts for more than 10 million lost school days, 1.2 million emergency room visits, and 15 million outpatient visits each year.  Asthma is the number leading cause of school absenteeism among children accounting for more than 14 million total missed days of school.

Dirty Power Plants

More than 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur.  In comparison, 56 percent of Whites and 39 percent of Latinos live in such proximity to a coal-fired power plant.   Over 35 million American children live within 30 miles of a power plant, of which an estimated two million are asthmatic.  Coal-burning power plants are the major source of mercury pollution, a neurotoxin especially harmful to children and developing fetuses.  About 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age are at risk from mercury pollution.  More than 23,600 U.S. deaths occur each year from dirty power plants.

Power plants are responsible for about 40 percent of all man-made CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, the most significant greenhouse gas, emitted from burning fossil fuels in the United States — placing power plants at the center of the debate on climate change and climate justice. SO2 (sulfur dioxide) emissions from power plants significantly harm the cardiovascular and respiratory health of people who live near the plants.

Even with talk about the nation going green, “green jobs,” and the “green economy,” dirty industries still follow the “path of least resistance,” allowing low-income and people of color communities to become environmental “sacrifice zones” and the “dumping grounds” for all kinds of health-threatening operations, including landfills, incinerators, dirty coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, petrochemical plants, and mountain-top removal mining of coal — often called “strip mining on steroids.”  Mountain-top mining in the southern Appalachians has turned more than 400,000 acres of forested mountains into lunar landscapes.

Geography of Air Pollution

More than 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Hispanics live in 437 counties with substandard air quality; over 61.3 percent of African American children, 69.2 percent of Hispanic children and 67.7 percent of Asian-American children live in areas that exceed the 0.08 ppm ozone standard, while 50.8 percent of white children live in such areas. One of every four American child lives in areas that regularly exceed the U.S. EPA’s ozone standards. And half the pediatric asthma population, two million children live in these areas.

Health Benefits of Clean Air

Americans are living longer because the air they breathe is getting cleaner.  The average drop in pollution seen across 51 metropolitan areas between 1980 and 2000 appears to have added nearly five more months to people’s lives. Researchers calculate that reductions in air pollution accounted for as much as 15 percent of the increase in life expectancy.  Residents of cities that did the best job cleaning up air pollution showed the biggest gains in life span.

Transportation Pollution

Reduction in motor vehicle emissions can have marked health improvements.  Emissions from cars, trucks, and buses cause 60-90 percent of air pollution in cities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that when the Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996 brought about a reduction in auto use by 22.5 percent, asthma admissions to emergency rooms (ERs) and hospitals also decreased by 41.6 percent. Diesel engine emissions contribute to serious public health problems including: premature mortality, aggravation of existing asthma, acute respiratory symptoms, chronic bronchitis, and decreased lung function. Long-term exposure to high levels of diesel exhausts (generally at the level of occupational exposure) increase risk of developing lung cancer. These emissions have also been linked to increased incidences of various cancers in more than 30 health studies.  Diesel particulate matter alone contributes to 125,000 cancers in the United States.

Global Warming, Climate Justice, and Public Health

Global warming is a public health issue.  It will increase the number of “bad air days” by as much as 155 percent in some cities. Researchers project that by the mid-century people living in 50 cities in the eastern U.S. will see a 68 percent (5.5 days) increase in the average number of days exceeding the health-based 8-hour ozone standard set by the EPA. Over 43 percent of African Americans live in these urban “heat islands,” compared to only 20 percent of whites. African Americans and Latinos consistently experience higher rates of heat-related mortality during heat waves. Ozone pollution is responsible for 10 to 20 percent, and nearly 50 percent on bad days, of all hospital admissions for respiratory conditions.  Ground level ozone sends an estimated 53,000 persons to the hospital, 159,000 to the emergency room and triggers 6.2 million asthma attacks each summer in the eastern half of the United States.

Finally, environmental justice leaders are eager to assist the Obama administration, states, and local governments with designing and building intergenerational support for transformational change — change and improvements that usher in a new day of equal protection, equal enforcement, equal opportunity, and equal access to healthy and sustainable schools, housing, parks, jobs, transportation, energy, and neighborhoods. The nation’s “invisible communities” have suffered and waited for decades for the government to get it right.

Robert D. Bullard is the Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston. His most recent book is entitled Environmental Health and Racial Equity in the United States: Building Environmentally Just, Sustainable and Livable Communities (APHA Press 2011). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Robert D., or visit Robert D.'s website.

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  1. Don Hawkins said on December 15th, 2010 at 9:36am #

    Researchers project that by the mid-century people living in 50 cities in the eastern U.S. will see a 68 percent (5.5 days) increase in the average number of days exceeding the health-based 8-hour ozone standard set by the EPA. Bullard

    By mid-century the average number of days exceeding the health-based 8-hour ozone standard set by the EPA on our present path will be the least of our problems.

  2. bozh said on December 15th, 2010 at 10:54am #

    racism came after discrimination or supremacism. recall that it had been clerico-noble class of life who taught us to fear and hate ?all other ‘aliens’. and peasantry, unmeritocracy!

    but, really, do we have to have races of people when science recognizes only one specie of humans?

    it seems better to talk about or divide [if we must divide] people into owned and owners. and owners being always richer and more powerful than the servant class.

    the latter ‘proclaimed’ “free and brave”!
    we need to give the term “racism” a rest or totally do away with it. for how a people like blacks, who survived and bore us whites and other colored people, be called “race” and we being racists against them when in fact we wldn’t be here without them being there for us?

    we being snobbish towards blacks might explain things! and top layer [s] of society even more so! the cause is the same: supremacism or imposed poverty, false know ledge on us, and inegalitarianism.

    remove even the last vestiges of supremacism and we solve also environmental problems– selves cause by the same disease: supremacism.

    envioronment, ‘schooling’, armaments, zenophobia, poverty; lack of knowledge-honesty-openess-justice; massive deceiving and lying is all one ball of wax. tnx