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Environmental Justice 101

Image displaying Blog title 'Environmental Justice 101' with Bailey Fillwiler, MSSA, LSW Columbus Public Health Social Worker
Earth day (April 22) is the perfect time to reflect on where we stand in the movement for environmental rights! 

Environmental injustice refers to the disparity in which low-income communities and communities of color experience disproportionally high exposure to pollutants, toxic waste, and climate risks. This injustice is compounded as these communities typically contribute the least in carbon emissions and waste, and do not receive any benefits of the industries or companies polluting near them. Typically, these communities also experience the highest burden of negative outcomes from pollution and increased vulnerability to climate change as a result. 
To better understand environmental injustice, we must look at the impacts on the mental, physical, social, and economic health of those residing in degraded environments. 

Mental/Physical Health
Economic Health
Social Health
Increased rates of:
  • Miscarriage
  • Birth defects
  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Skin conditions
  • Hypertension
  • Heatstroke
  • Development of psychiatric disorders
  • Inability to attract new businesses
  • Low employment and wage opportunities
  • Lost income due to health outcomes
  • Reduced property values
  • Rising utility costs/ utility shut offs
Decreased rates of:
  • Attachment to the land
  • Social cohesion
  • Access to green spaces
  • Access to food
  • Safe transport
Increased rates of:
  • Forced migration

Impacted communities often lack the financial and social capital to stop polluting parties or address the negative health outcomes they experience. In these ways, we see that climate justice intersects with all other forms of justice (racial, social, economic).

Environmental Injustice Is All Around Us
Examples of the intersectionality of environmental injustice are numerous and range from EPA reports that show 70% of superfund sites (federally documented sites of toxic pollutants) are within 3-miles of federally subsidized housing to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that Black children develop asthma at four times the rate of white children and are three times more likely to die of asthma-related causes.
Unfortunately, we aren’t without these types of injustices either. Franklin County Public Health reported increased vulnerability of heatstroke for low-income community members who cannot afford the rising utility costs during increasingly hot summers. Environmental injustice is all around us. 
How to Tell if Something Is Environmental Injustice
When determining what is classified as environmental injustice, we need to ask ourselves some questions:
  • Is the waste/pollution concentrated in a specific area?
  • Who are the polluting parties? 
  • Who is benefiting and who is harmed by the pollution?

Have you experienced environmental injustice? Do you know someone who has suffered from it? 
 Cartoon depicting a mansion on the hill overlooking small homes in the midst of pollution and industrial runoff. The caption reads 'The rich get richer, and the poor get their byproducts'.
Art by Steve Greenberg

Environmental Justice Actions
Everyone deserves clean air, water, land, food, and affordable energy and transport. Environmental justice efforts seek to eliminate the unequal burdens of communities of color and those living in poverty in accessing those rights. Examples of integrated environmental justice practices can look like ensuring populations most impacted are first to be trained and hired for high-wage green jobs, renovating low-income housing with green energy sources, increasing access to green spaces, or financially supporting the development of sustainable urban agriculture. 
What environmental justice actions will you take to make a difference this month?

Bailey Fullwiler, MSSA, LSW, is a participant of the YWCA Leadership for Social Change 2021 Cohort and currently serves with the Neighborhood Social Services division of Columbus Public Health and on the Ohio Environmental Council's Emerging Leaders Council.

Hand-picked resources from Bailey to help you learn about environmental injustice:
  1. A Terrible Thing to Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind by Harriet A. Washington (Book)
  2. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility by Dorceta Taylor (Book)
  3. Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret by Catherine Coleman Flowers (Book)
  4. How to Save a Planet (Podcast)
  5. Green Dreamer (Podcast)
  6. There’s Something in the Water (Documentary)