The term environmental justice refers to the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. It includes fair and equal access to all decision-making functions and activities. Race and income shape the historic and present distribution of many environmental benefits and burdens.
I. Proximity of Communities of Color to Pollution
A. Hispanics and Asians
C. Proximity to Pollution Increases Long-Term Exposure to Risk
D. Current EPA Response
III. Racial Disparities
Proximity of Communities of Color to Pollution
African Americans are almost four-fifths more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger. In 19 states, African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods with air pollution. Controversies about racism between whites and African Americans, between other nonwhite groups and African Americans, and within environmental organizations and the government are inflamed by the proximity of African American communities to dangerous industrial pollution.
The Associated Press (AP) analyzed the health risk posed by industrial air pollution using toxic chemical air releases reported by factories to calculate a health risk score for all communities in the United States. The scores are used to compare risks from long-term exposure to industrial air, water, and land pollution from one area to another. The scores are based on the amount of toxic pollution released by each factory, the path the pollution takes as it spreads through the air, the level of danger to humans posed by each different chemical released, and the number of males and females of different ages who live in the exposure paths. The AP study results confirm a long string of reports that show that race maps closely with the geography of pollution and unequal protection. These data do not include many other sources of pollution known to affect all urban residents. They also do not consider possible synergistic and cumulative effects.
Historically, African American and other people-of-color communities have borne a disproportionate burden of pollution from incinerators, smelters, sewage treatment plants, chemical industries, and a host of other polluting facilities. Environmental racism has rendered millions of blacks invisible to government regulations and enforcement.
The risk scores also do not include emissions and risks from other types of air pollution, like trucks and cars. The AP research indicates residents in neighborhoods with the highest pollution scores also tend to be poorer, less educated, and more often unemployed. However, numerous other studies show blacks and other people of color concentrated in nonattainment areas that failed to meet EPA ground-level ozone standards. This is pollution mainly from cars, trucks, and buses. It is substantial and affects African Americans and Hispanics more than others.
In 1992, 57 percent of whites, 65 percent of African Americans, and 80 percent of Latinos lived in one of the 437 counties that failed to meet at least one of the EPA ambient air quality standards. A 2000 study by the American Lung Association found children of color to be disproportionately represented in areas with high ozone levels.
Hispanics and Asians
According to the AP report, in 12 states Hispanics are more than twice as likely as non- Hispanics to live in the neighborhoods with the highest risk scores. There are seven states where Asians are more than twice as likely as whites to live in the most polluted areas. In terms of air quality, other studies have shown that Hispanic neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by air pollution, particularly in the southwestern United States.
Many hold that environmental proximity is a function of income. This assumes a free and flowing housing market without institutional barriers like racism. Higher-income neighborhoods have more political, legal, and economic power to resist industrial sites. The average income in the highest-risk neighborhoods was $18,806 when the census last measured it (2000), more than $3,000 less than the nationwide average. One of every six people in the high-risk areas lived in poverty, compared with one of eight in lower-risk areas. Unemployment was almost 20 percent higher than the national average in the neighborhoods with the highest risk scores.
Proximity to Pollution Increases Long-Term Exposure to Risk
Short-term exposure to common air pollution worsens existing lung and heart disease and is linked to diseases like asthma, bronchitis, and cancer. Long-term exposure increases these risks. Many potentially synergistic chemical reactions in waste in cities are unknown, and so are their potential or actual bioaccumulative risks to humans. The question is who bears the risk of risks not regulated by the government? Until recently, the costs of public health have been separate from the costs of production for industrial capitalism. As health costs mount, the stakeholders who pay for them are protesting.
Current EPA Response
More than 80 research studies during the 1980s and 1990s found that African Americans and poor people were far more likely than whites to live near hazardous waste disposal sites, polluting power plants, or industrial parks. Other studies of the distribution of the benefits and burdens of EPA environmental decisions also found a clear demarcation along race lines. The disparities were blamed on many factors, including racism in housing and land markets, and a lack of economic and political power to influence land-use decisions in neighborhoods. The studies brought charges of racism. Legally, one must prove the intent to be racist, not just the fact that a given situation is racist. It is very difficult to prove the intent of a city or town when they pass a racially or economically exclusionary zoning ordinance. They are very difficult legal issues to litigate, but litigation still happens. President Clinton responded in 1993 by issuing an environmental justice executive order (EO 12898) requiring federal agencies to ensure that people of color and low-income people are not disproportionately exposed to more pollution. Recent reports suggest little has changed.
The EPA does not intervene in local land-use decisions. The federal government has preemptive power over state and local government to take property it needs. The state governments tend to know about local land-use decisions in relation to environmental agencies. The weak intergovernmental relations between these branches of government allow this controversy to continue to simmer. There are often battles between state environmental agencies and the EPA over the requirements of EO 12898. State environmental agencies are resistant to incorporating environmental justice issues but accommodate regulated industries with one-on-one consultation and permit facilitation.
The ways to measure race are themselves very controversial. The U.S. census undercounts urban residents of color frequently, and mayors file lawsuits every 10 years. Significant disparities in health and the actual quality of aspects of the urban environment exist at every level, an indicator of institutionalized racism.
- African Americans represent 12.7 percent of the U.S. population; they account for 26 percent of all asthma deaths.
- African Americans were hospitalized for asthma at more than three times the rate of whites (32.9 per 10,000 versus 10.3 per 10,000) in 2001.
- The asthma prevalence rate in African Americans was almost 38 percent higher than that in whites in 2002.
- African American females have the highest prevalence rates (105 per 1,000) of any group.
- African Americans are more likely to develop and die of cancer than persons of any other racial and ethnic group. During 1992–1999, the average annual incidence rate per 100,000 for all cancer sites was 526.6 for African Americans, 480.4 for whites, 348.6 for Asian/Pacific Islanders, 329.6 in Hispanics, and 244.6 in American Indians/Alaska Natives.
- African Americans are more likely to die of cancer than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. The average annual death rate from 1997 to 2001 for all cancers combined was 253 per 100,000 for blacks, 200 for whites, 137 for Hispanic Americans, 135 for American Indians/Alaska Natives, and 122 for Asians/Pacific Islanders.
- Cancer kills more African American children than white children. Cancer is surpassed only by accidents and homicides as the number-one killer of African American children.
- Although cancer mortality rates for all races combined declined 2.4 percent each year between 1990 and 1995, the decline for African American children (0.5 percent) was significantly less than that for white children (3 percent).
- African American men have the highest rates of prostate, lung, colon, oral cavity, and stomach cancer.
- African American men are more than 140 percent more likely to die from cancer than white men.
- More white women are stricken with breast cancer than black women, yet black women are 28 percent more likely to die from the disease than white women.
- The overall cancer cure rate, as measured by survival for over five years following the diagnosis, is currently 50 percent for whites but only 35 percent for blacks.
- Cancers among African Americans are more frequently diagnosed after the cancer has metastasized and spread to regional or distant sites.
- Minorities with cancer often suffer more pain owing to undermedication. Nearly 62 percent of patients at institutions serving predominantly African American patients were not prescribed adequate analgesics.
- Many low-income, minority communities are located in close proximity to chemical and industrial settings where toxic waste is generated. These include chemical waste disposal sites, fossil-fuel power plants, municipal incinerators, and solid waste landfills.
- African Americans and other socioeconomically disadvantaged populations are more likely to live in the most hazardous environments and to work in the most hazardous occupations.
- Inner-city black neighborhoods are overburdened with pollution from diesel buses. In a 2002 EPA report, researchers concluded that long-term (i.e., chronic) inhalation exposure to diesel engine exhaust (DE) is likely to pose a lung cancer hazard to humans, as well as damage the lung in other ways, depending on exposure.
- There is a strong relationship between environmental exposure and lung cancer among African Americans, which accounts for the largest number of cancer deaths among both men (30 percent) and women (21 percent).
- People living in the most polluted metropolitan areas have a 12 percent increased risk of dying from lung cancer compared to people living in the least polluted areas.
- Smoking does not explain why lung cancer is responsible for the most cancer deaths among African Americans. Although many black men identify themselves as current smokers, they typically have smoked less and started smoking later in life than white men.
- Rates are higher in urban areas because of increased air pollution and increased particulate matter in the air.
- Minority workers are at a higher health risk from occupational exposure to environmental contaminants.
- African American men are twice as likely to have increased cancer incidence from occupational exposure as white men.
Many feel that belated government efforts to control polluting industries have generally been neutralized by well-organized and well-financed opposition. Industry is challenged in lengthy court battles, during which time industry still has the right to maintain production and exposure of people to suspect materials. Since the environmental regulations themselves and laws apply on a per industrial plant basis, and it is hard to prove any one plant at any one time did directly cause the harm alleged, the process and controversy continue. Communities have also become organized around this issue and have been developing environmental information and data.
Racism in U.S. society is not news but remains a fact. Slavery is racist and the United States had African slaves that built the foundations of the country. These facts reach far into many present-day environmental dynamics that are as repulsive as slavery and racism seem to present-day populations. And in the environmental area, just like history, the most pernicious racism is reserved for African Americans. After the Civil War, three waves of African American people migrated north to the cities, seeking freedom and economic opportunity, just as all other immigrants and migrants have done before and since. When urban industrialization expanded, it polluted the city. Many other people of color and migrants were able to melt into U.S. society. In the areas of housing, employment, health, education, and transportation, this has not been the case with African Americans. Instead of moving out of the city, many African Americans stayed because of foreclosed opportunities. Industry has also stayed in these neighborhoods. This controversy is the broken lock to a Pandora’s box of unavoidable and necessary controversy. All discussions of cumulative effects, sustainability, and U.S. urban environmentalism must consider the true environmental past of every place. There are many reasons for this, the least of which is to know where to clean up first. The next set of policy controversies involves the prevention of industrial growth in areas that may be irreparably damaged.
Underneath this controversy is another set of issues. The primary reason for most environmental policy is to protect the environment and the public. In most U.S. cities, it is now fairly easy to establish which communities bore the brunt of cumulative and synergistic risks. These communities are now shown to have a disproportionate adverse reaction to environmental stressors, expressing itself in a number of physical ways, such as childhood asthma. New environmental policies such as sustainability and the precautionary principle will require information about past environmental conditions, but the question of reparative public health intervention for proximate communities is left dangling. This is also known as the canary-in-the-coal-mine phenomenon.
Currently, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Committee is meeting with the EPA to recommend ways to limit or mitigate harms to local communities from increased emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide due to increased trade and movement of goods and related transportation infrastructure growth. Some feel that this will focus attention on commercial marine and locomotive engines and their emissions, a current point of contention between environmentalists who want much stricter standards and industry that resists regulation. Ports, railroad depots, airports, and truck depots all create pockets of emissions, and many suspect these disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color. Concern over the impacts of the movement of goods has increased due to recent and projected increases in foreign trade. The assumption is that this increase will require substantial transportation expansion from coasts and ports to inland destinations, likely affecting many environmental justice communities that are already disproportionately affected by past and present pollution. It may be a sign of progress in some areas that the canaries in the coal mine are actively resisting all activities that increase their pollution exposure. It promises to be a significant environmental justice issue in the near future, especially as scientists begin to explore the ecological restoration of coastal waters and rivers. Environmental information will be highly scrutinized, there will be scientific debate about risk and causality, and government regulators will eventually enforce much stricter emission standards at multimodal transportation hubs.
Robert William Collin
- Bullard, Robert D., ed., Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.
- Faber, Daniel, Capitalizing on Environmental Injustice: The Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.
- Rhodes, Eduardo Lao, Environmental Justice in America: A New Paradigm. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003.
- Schrader-Freschette, K. S., Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.