The intersection between public health and environmental justice has emerged as a topic of interest in nearly all corners of the country, as communities, policymakers, and elected officials grapple with the immediate and long-term health effects of pollution and climate change. From Flint’s water crisis to fires in California to families struck by rare cancers in Georgia, the costly negative health impact of pollution and climate change seem ubiquitous–and at times untenable—but public health has a critical role in the environmental justice fight.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Fair treatment signifies and underscores the right of all people and communities to have equal environmental protection under the law and the right to live and work in environments that are safe, healthy, and free of life-threatening conditions. Meaningful involvement should provide for equal access to the decision-making processes that ensure people have healthy environments to live, learn, and work.
The Flint water crisis is a prime example of a failure to treat communities fairly and meaningfully involve them in decisions about their environment and their health. Ware County, Georgia, where more than one in four residents live below the federal poverty line, houses six of the state’s most contaminated sites, an environmental factor that community residents believe to be the cause of a cluster of rare cancers. The fact that Flint is a majority-Black and poor city and Ware is a poor county with multiple contaminated sites draws a clear line to the need to approach environmental justice through a J.E.D.I. (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) lens.
J.E.D.I. offers a framework for communities and organizations to address systematic racial, economic, and environmental injustice, which is critical as we continually and consistently see challenges from COVID-19 to climate change hit Black, Brown, and poor communities hardest. The explicit exclusion of certain groups has contributed to the harmful impact of climate change and pollution–a phenomenon that climate justice essayist Mary Annaïse Heglar links to a history of “conquest, genocides, slavery, and colonialism.” The huddling of Black migrants into substandard housing through redlining and the removal of Indigenous peoples from their native lands are disruptive acts that contribute to both the spread of cancer and the spread of COVID-19 as well as many other diseases and poor health outcomes. These historic acts of disruption and dismissal are connected to water and land contamination in places like Flint and Ware County, where marginalized communities get the most pollution and the least protection. Those realities are like tinder for a spark like COVID-19.
Black Americans have died at 1.4 times the rate of their white counterparts due to COVID-19, according to The COVID Tracking Project from the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. This disparity can be traced back to the increased likelihood that many Black Americans live in densely populated neighborhoods, and often in multigenerational households, due to segregation and economic divestment, and the higher rates of exposure to pollution that has been linked to higher rates of death from COVID-19. Indigenous communities have faced a similarly high death rate from COVID-19, with death rates more than twice the rate of white Americans, which can be linked to the higher rates of chronic illness, limited access to safe water and fresh food, and multigenerational families sharing close quarters.
Climate change has also contributed to a rise in respiratory illnesses and the worsening of existing respiratory conditions, especially in vulnerable populations. The combination of these preexisting conditions caused by environmental factors and the prolific spread of a respiratory disease like COVID-19 is one of many reasons some communities have fared far worse during the pandemic than others.
These extreme disparities, and the root causes that drive them, have shed new light on the need to focus on environmental justice that truly centers on the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all Americans, especially those who have been intentionally excluded and disproportionately affected by the effects of pollution and climate change. One way to do that is by “invest[ing] in transformative change where we make … communities healthier, more viable, ecosystems” according to Sacoby Wilson, an environmental health scientist at the University of Maryland. Both Wilson and Michael Méndez, UCI assistant professor of urban planning and public policy, have highlighted the need for increased resources and funding to properly safeguard communities suffering the most harm from pollution and climate change.
Moving forward, NNPHI’s supports making environmental justice a priority for public health. As leaders in public health, we call upon public health professionals and organizations alike to address the extreme health disparities caused by unfair environmental policies and regulations within marginalized communities around the country. We should be focused on uplifting the voices of marginalized communities through the practice of equity, diversity, and inclusion when making decisions about their health and future. Please reach out NNPHI’s Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Recovery portfolio for more information on ways you or your organization can prioritize environmental justice in your work.