Environmental justice is at the intersection of health, pollution, and fairness.

The concept of environmental justice did not have a name at first. It also didn’t have a lot of backing.

A few years after the inaugural Earth Day, a young sociologist named Robert Bullard gathered information for his then-1979 wife’s lawsuit against a landfill planned for a middle-class black community in Houston. His research revealed that, despite the fact that just around a quarter of Houston’s people were black, all of the city-owned landfills and the majority of city-owned incinerators were located in black communities.

Environmental justice is now widely recognized as a critical public health concern. And Bullard is now regarded as the movement’s father. He is the director of Texas Southern University’s Center for Environmental and Climate Justice, which bears his name.

However, he claims that in the early days, when he requested assistance from environmental organizations, the answer was, “That’s fascinating.” But aren’t landfills and rubbish dumps intended to be located there? ” “We don’t do the environment,” civil rights activists warned him.

“I mean, we’re talking about clean air, clean water, healthy children, walkable, livable cities, I think this is worth imagining and fighting for.”


Bullard and others suggested it would take a decade of organization and action for more people to recognize how racial rights and environmentalism intersect. “That convergence is known as environmental justice.”

In “Dumping in Dixie,” one of 18 books he’s written about environmental justice, he describes it as “the principle that all individuals and communities, regardless of race, income, national origin, or where they live, are entitled to equal protection of our environmental laws.”

The location of a person’s residence has a “significant” impact on their health, according to Dr. Lisa Patel, deputy executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health, which the American Heart Association joined in 2019.

And the health aspects of a community are not formed by chance. “They are the outcome of systemically racist policies, such as redlining, that make certain communities more vulnerable” to pollution, according to Patel, who is also a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California.

There are numerous examples:

Today, neighborhoods that were subjected to redlining in the 1930s have significant levels of air pollution. Redlined communities, typically populated by black, Hispanic, or Asian people, were judged financially hazardous and barred from investment. According to a 2021 study published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, redlining maps now closely match maps of the worst air pollution. Fine particulate matter in the air, such as soot, smoke, or dust, has been associated with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease.

According to a 2021 study published in the journal Science Advances, black, Hispanic, Asian, and other individuals of color are more likely to be exposed to sources of air pollution, regardless of income. Even while pollution levels have dropped generally, such discrepancies have persisted.

According to a study published in Climate in 2020, a redlined area is also less likely to have cooling greenspaces and is more likely to have greater heat levels—an average of 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, heat can contribute to heart attacks, strokes, and other forms of cardiovascular illness, with low-income and black individuals being the most vulnerable.

According to Virginia Commonwealth University research, as a result of such discrepancies, life expectancy in ZIP codes just a few miles apart can vary widely—by as much as 20 years.

Patel sees textbook examples in her own California neighborhood. West Oakland, previously a bustling black business district, was cut off by motorway construction. Trucks supplying the busy port in the same area must travel Interstate 880, which goes through communities where the majority of residents have low incomes or are black or Hispanic. However, truck traffic is prohibited on nearby Interstate 580, which goes through more affluent regions.

As a result, West Oakland has a “severalfold greater incidence of asthma and cardiovascular illness than families only a few miles away in the gorgeous Oakland hills,” according to Patel.

Patel believes that climate change will exacerbate environmental justice issues. For example, it is already increasing the intensity and severity of wildfires, exposing people to choking smoke. However, what we’ve observed in the Bay Area over the last few years is that it’s the higher-income households that can afford an HVAC system within their home, with filters fitted to remove the majority of the air pollution. Lower-income households are unable to.

Still, Bullard’s outlook on the future is a blend of optimism and realism.

We’ve made a lot of progress and seen a lot of change. However, there is still a lot of work to be done. And, despite the fact that he has seen such concerns travel from rural backroads to the White House, he believes that most of what has been done has been low-hanging fruit in comparison to the transformative reforms that are required, particularly to protect communities from climate change.

Younger people, he believes, are more likely to see how “housing, transportation, education, the environment, civil rights, criminal justice, health—all of these things are connected.”

Bullard advises people who wish to help to start in their own neighborhoods. “Start small,” he advised. “And as you begin locally, you can begin to create relationships.”

Patel encourages people who are concerned to open up about their issues, citing studies that demonstrate people tend to underestimate other people’s concerns about the environment. “Do something about it, and tell others what you’re doing.”

As a culture, we’ve made “a lot of mistakes,” she says, but we can learn from them and admit that “this has been unjust; it has damaged health.” However, this is an opportunity to create a more sustainable future.

“We’re talking about clean air, clean water, healthy children, and walkable, livable cities,” Patel explained. “I believe this is something worth imagining and working for.”

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