Silent Discrimination: Issues of Environmental Justice

by Candace Rowell on January 16, 2012

Image from

Poor air quality.
Close proximity to hazardous waste sites.
Increased asthma rates.
Urban black neighborhood.

As Americans we are promised certain rights regardless of race. But science shows the right to breathe clean air can have racial boundaries. Health studies indicate low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods experience the highest burden of pollution in the United States.

Forty-nine years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of his dreams. Forty-nine years and much of America is still dreaming of equality.

Quantitative studies show minority groups in the United States bear an unequal distribution of environmental risks and outcomes. This is more than theory and speculation; this is scientific evidence of environmental injustice.

Environmental justice as defined by the EPA – “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”. According to the EPA, fair treatment indicates that no racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic groups should bear an unfair share of negative environmental consequences. Unfortunately in the U.S. countless African American communities are disproportionately exposed to toxic substances. A recent study analyzed the success of the Clean Air Act in ensuring healthy air quality in communities across the nation (  The Clean Air Act of 1970 was established to ensure all U.S. citizens breathed air of the highest obtainable quality. This establishment of national standards essentially established clean air as a right to all American citizens.

Using the American Lung Association (ALA) method for ranking air quality and EPA air quality data from across the nation, the study concludes that outdoor air quality varies greatly across demographic groups. Using three different measurements of air pollution (annual and daily fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone) which are regulated by the EPA, data shows non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics are more likely to live in areas with the worst air quality. Across the spectrum of varying air quality in communities, the 20% of communities with the worst air quality were home to twice the proportion of African Americans than the 20% of communities with the best air quality.  African Americans are 32% more likely to reside in areas of poor PM2.5 air quality and 6% more likely to reside in areas with poor air quality due to ozone pollution.

Using U.S. Census 2000 data, the study showed these disproportionately exposed minority populations have a higher percentage of children under the age of five. It has long been established that children of this age group are more vulnerable to health risks associated with air pollution.

The National Institutes of Health indicates asthma rates are higher among poor African American inner-city residents- with the highest among children.  These higher asthma rates have been linked to a variety of factors including exposure to environmental toxins. Increased asthma symptoms and hospitalizations have been associated with exposure to particulate matter and ozone (in addition to other pollutants).

According to collected evidence, there is indication the Clean Air Act and its amendments do not guarantee equal access to clean air.  American communities are disproportionately exposed to air pollution. But it’s more than just air quality and asthma rates. There is an extensive list of disproportionate health risks and outcomes. This isn’t new information. For years studies have shown minority groups and impoverished communities are more likely to live in areas of close proximity to hazardous waste sites, areas of environmental degradation, and areas with higher levels of pollution. Industrial development often occurs in and around urban African American communities. Issues of unemployment, poverty, poor housing, education and health work to perpetuate these issues and limit adequate representation of these groups in decision making both locally and nationally. Environmental injustices continue to exist in America today. Environmental injustice towards minority groups is the silent discrimination of America.

This is not a hard-fast rule. These are not universal statistics. But this is the reality for many Americans.

Check out the study:   Miranda et al. Making the Environmental Justice Grade: The Relative Burden of Air Pollution Exposure in the United States. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2011, 8, 1755-1771; doi:10.3390/ijerph8061755

*Updated 1/17/12 2:10pm

Gaythia Weis January 16, 2012 at 2:37 pm

I believe that Candace Rowell has done an excellent job highlighting the current state of environmental injustice in this country.

With regard to the paper cited: Is the data given the correct target for the analysis desired by this research papers authors regarding “whether the Clean Air Act and its Amendments have been equally successful in ensuring the right to healthful air quality in both advantaged and disadvantaged communities in the United States”? I have only accessed the abstract to this paper. It would seem to me that the Clean Air Act, while certainly not completely successful in providing fully clean air, does at least attempt to establish a national baseline. I think that it would be interesting to analyze specific areas of high pollution, and to monitor how they have changed since the Clean Air Act was implemented. The Clean Air Act, in my opinion, is not responsible for underlying urban real estate patterns.

I think that it is important to note that the paper abstract also points out that “Rural areas are typically outside the bounds of air quality monitoring networks leaving large segments of the population without information about their ambient air quality.” Some of those rural areas may be pristine, some not so much. This environmental inequality may be a problem of poverty and power, which of course, in this country also strongly links to racial discrimination issues, but is not exclusive to them.

Globally, many of the items we import evade the environmental pollution and working conditions standards that they would have to meet if they were made here. And, somewhat inversely, any sea level changes due to climate change would affect those living on a atoll in the Pacific more directly than they would those of us residing in higher elevation areas but who are more directly connected to energy usage leading to CO2 and soot production.

Ultimately, we need to realize that the linkages between all humans matter. Candace Rowell has made a good contribution by highlighting this issue.

Candace Rowell January 16, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Gaythia, thank you for your comments. I agree with you in regards to the Clean Air Act’s responsibilities as well as the linkage between poverty and power and environmental injustice. I do not think the Clean Air Act is responsible for improving housing conditions or socioeconomic conditions. However, I do believe the Clean Air Act’s establishment of national standards provides one metric of health risks that can be used as a point of argument to improve highly exposed communities conditions. The establishment of uniform national standards allows for a national comparison of environmental conditions and therefore allows scientists to focus on areas of concern. I do thank you for the comment regarding the Clean Air Act’s impact on improvement of national air quality. It should be noted that the general trend in air pollution has been improving since the Act was adopted in the 1970’s.
The paper did highlight there exists a significant proportion (mainly rural areas) of the nation where no air quality monitoring actually exists. One of the conclusions of the study is that there is a need for better monitoring and only with better monitoring will we have a better understanding of air quality issues throughout the nation.
Thank you for commenting on the global link. In the global economy we live in today the repercussions of our actions know no boundaries.

Mary M January 16, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Nice timing of your post for MLK day. That’s a good strategy when it can be done.

I thought the point was well made, with some appropriate links. I might have used more with direct data from studies, but I probably over-link stuff like that. I was surprised when I got to the bottom and there was no live link to the paper, I didn’t realize it was the same one from up above. I would have clicked at the bottom.

My only other thought for additional stuff I’d like to see is a little bit of hope or action or something. Are there organizations working on this, or bills to call our congresscritters to support, or some other constructive action? Are there stories of effective actions? It was so bleak by the end….

Candace Rowell January 16, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Thanks for the comments Mary. I added a live link at the end of the post for ease of viewing the article.
There is a movement towards positive action in the area of environmental justice. Just this year the EPA has announced a $1 million dollar grant aimed at funding research on the topic.
There is also additional work being carried out by activist groups and organizations all over the nation and some progress has been made. I don’t want the reader to walk away feeling hopeless, but there is a need to convey a very strong message. There is still a lot of work to be done in ensuring all Americans have equal rights to healthy environments.

Paula Johnson January 16, 2012 at 3:38 pm

Good title, and a timely piece, being MLK day. I think that Candace points out in her review of the article that although the Clean Air Act may be a good thing (and is not responsible for disparities), we can reference the Act to remind people that we have laws that intend to protect everyone but don’t, and that something else is needed. If we are a democracy, then why doesn’t everyone have a say? Candace points out these barriers. She also points out that this is not new information. And yes, we do need to realize that humans are interconnected, and if equality isn’t enough to persuade those who can make a difference, other connections such as healthcare economics can be brought to the table.
Just a little constructive criticism – “toxicants” instead of “toxins.”

Candace Rowell January 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm

Hi Paula. Thanks for the comments!

Liz Borkowski January 16, 2012 at 5:49 pm

It’s great that you’re drawing attention to this important topic – and very appropriate to publish it on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!

It would be helpful to specify whether or not the poor air quality described in the study exceeds the EPA limits for ozone and particulates. If areas with predominantly African-American or Hispanic populations are routinely exceeding those limits, then it’s likely that state and local governments aren’t doing enough to meet their Clean Air Act responsibilities. (Of course, when it comes to air pollution, there’s only so much one jurisdiction can do about air pollution that originates from another district, but they can at least work on things like traffic congestion that are under their control.) If areas are meeting EPA standards for air pollutants but levels of PM or ozone are still high enough to cause health problems, then the problem is with the national standards. There might be shortcomings in both local actions and national standards — it would be good to say who it is that should be doing a better job on air quality to address this environmental injustice.

Candace Rowell January 17, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Thanks Liz. I agree it would be both interesting and beneficial to examine if minority populations live in areas which are consistently in non-attainment of national ambient air quality standards. This would provide more insight beyond the comparison of areas with best versus worst air quality. There is a definite need for better linking health research with environmental monitoring data!

Gaythia Weis January 16, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Readers here might also be interested in the post Liz Borkowski (the commenter above) now has up where she blogs, The Pump Handle, using this post by Candice Rowell as its starting point:

Mind the Science Gap is already impacting the blogesphere!

PF Anderson January 17, 2012 at 6:40 am

Beautifully crafted piece of science journalism and advocacy. As mentioned above, the timing was brilliant – nicely done! It clearly spells out the what, why, who, where and how. Even better, it does so with a sense of emotional connection, almost a story, and strong evidence. The only thing I’d recommend would be to perhaps have a bit more of a story, and to include something visual (an image? a supporting video?) to help engage the general audience and make the message more powerful and catchy. Regarding the science aspect of the piece, I would have personally appreciated a few more links to some of the other data and resources mentioned. Very very nicely done!

Candace Rowell January 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Thanks so much! I’ll work on including more visuals and supporting material in future posts.

Matt Shipman January 17, 2012 at 7:57 am

Nice piece, but I have some questions (that might make for a good follow-up piece). Is the problem that the Clean Air Act (CAA) is not being enforced? Or that it has loopholes that are being exploited? If it is an enforcement issue, are state agencies culpable, or does this fall solely on the shoulders of EPA’s Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance (OECA)? Have you contacted OECA’s environmental justice office to see what they think the biggest problems are, and what (if anything) they are trying to do to resolve them? Is this a case of the agency being hamstrung by limited personnel/funding (i.e., lack of political will to support the effort)? It would be worthwhile to get some perspective on the specific challenges facing the agency, states, communities and other stakeholders in terms of implementing existing controls. In other words, look at procedural hurdles as well as outcomes. NEJAC would be a good starting point (National Environmental Justice Advisory Council). Also, look up FORMER NEJAC members. They understand the process, have been through the bureaucracy, but are able to speak more freely now that they are no longer active board members.

Candace Rowell January 17, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Thanks for the questions Matt. This topic definitely has the potential to keep going. From the conversations and research I have done thus far, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on where the specific problems lie. As you may guess everyone has a different opinion as to where the issues of disproportionate exposure across demographic groups stem from. Thanks for the suggestions on contacts to help shed more light on the issue.

Matt Shipman January 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I covered this topic for a few years when I was a reporter. It is fascinating, tragic and complex. While it is easy to deplore many of the outcomes (which are clearly awful), it is important to understand the tangled web of causal factors. Only by delineating the constituent problems can we begin to solve them — and thus address the overarching environmental justice crisis.

PF Anderson January 17, 2012 at 8:56 am

I was just exploring this post further, and when clicking through the links I was surprised to find that the link given for the National Institutes of Health was anything but. Firstly, while identified as NIH, the organization was a specific subsection of the NIH, NIAID. Secondly, the link went to a disreputable copy of the original content, a link to a commercial site with no official contact identified by name who scraped the content from the official source. I thought perhaps it might be helpful to provide a link to the actual original content on the official government server. Here is that, plus a couple alternatives from NIAID.

* NIAID: Asthma & Minority Health: PDF:
NIAID: Minority Health:
NIAID: Asthma:

Candace Rowell January 17, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Thanks for providing additional links.These comments have been a great learning tool on particulars to pay attention to in future posts.

azmanam January 17, 2012 at 9:38 am

My only comment is one of causality. Are industries choosing to pollute in poor, predominately African American communities, or are land values around industrial sites depressed, thus predominately inhabited by poor Americans (who happen to be predominately African American)? In other words, is the problem that African Americans are predominately poor and can only afford housing in polluted areas, or that polluters are targeting poor, African American communities?

The answer changes the perspective of the story, imho. If polluters are targeting minority areas, then the problem is violation of the Clean Air Act. If minorities settle in polluted areas, then the problem is income inequality and housing access, which is a different issue entirely which would involve education reform, etc.

If its the latter, I would argue the Clean Air Act is providing equal access to clean air, but some are choosing to reside in more polluted areas than others. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure the problem is with the Clean Air Act.

As Liz mentioned above, knowing whether those areas are exceeding regulated standards, or just higher than cleaner areas but within standards is an important piece of information. Statistics need context.

Good post on a good topic. Thanks for writing.

Candace Rowell January 17, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Thanks for the comments. The issue of causality is one that has been highly debated. The answer seems to be that there is a bit of both situations occurring- suggesting both a need for more stringent regulations ensuring equal distribution of pollution as well as the need for reform to help improve areas of minority settlement. The issue of choice in itself is an issue of debate among many. The structural constraints of society that lead people to “choose” to live in polluted areas can in themselves be considered issues of injustice and inequality (though not necessarily environmental) – but this is getting off topic. Ultimately it can be useful to use the air quality monitoring required by the Clean Air Act as a way to compare air quality disparities across the nation.

Aniketa Shinde January 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Good post on a topic I do not see covered from a science perspective (mostly see it from a social justice perspective). I did not see a definition of hazardous waste/toxic substance (besides air pollution), some examples of hazardous waste would be useful. Most of the article focuses on air, but a mention of other substances related to environmental justice would give a broader perspective and also expose readers to issues besides clean air.

Candace Rowell January 17, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Thanks Aniketa! I definitely agree a broader perspective could have strengthened the post and given the reader a more complete picture. In an effort to keep the piece relatively short I chose to focus on a particular area of concern, but there is no shortage of angles that could be taken on this issue.

Angela January 18, 2012 at 10:07 am

I have to slightly disagree with Aniketa’s comment. To a geographer, the post looks still a lot like science communication. Without the ‘environmental justice’ story around the data, it would probably not communicate so well. Geographers would probably have used a specific case study of an area as an example, to render the issue less abstract.

What would have helped me are more links, especially as I’m from outside the US: EPA, American Lung association – and even Martin Luther King would be more accessible with a link to their websites. Btw non-US people might not be aware that a MLK day exists in the US, so it might be nice to mention the occasion in the introduction.
Links to examples for ‘qualitative studies’ or ‘health studies’ would also have been nice or to an environmental justice history or ‘environmental racism’ overview (e.g. Wikipedia).

Thank you for the interesting post, Candace!

Candace Rowell January 18, 2012 at 11:31 am

Hi Angela-
I’ll definitely try to work more links into my next post to make background information more accessible! Thanks for the comments.

Aniketa Shinde January 18, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Oops, I think we agree. I meant to say I do not *usually* see it covered as a science piece.

Angela January 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Ah, ok! : D

MB Lewis January 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Candace: You have a strong viewpoint on this, which makes for compelling reading (esp on MLK day, as others have noted). Transitioning from lyrical intro to more scientific prose can be awkward, but I thought you pulled it off pretty well. Careful on little typos that undermine your authority: 4th paragraph, for instance: ” policies,”.
Look forward to reading more from you!

Candace Rowell January 17, 2012 at 2:13 pm

Thanks so much. Typo corrected.

Kerri January 17, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Very good post! I enjoyed reading the part about asthma, as I am about to start recruiting for a study regarding asthma in the elderly. This review brought up some new avenues I may need to explore. How different is air quality within one city? If all of my participants are from the same city should I control for air quality in my analysis, perhaps by zip code or neighborhood? Is that data available publicly? Thanks for sharing!

Candace Rowell January 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Hi Kerri – these are good questions to consider. It may be something worth looking into. Here is a link to all EPA data sources for air quality.

Lawrence January 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Nice approach to the topic! We hear about EJ in so many instances that it tends to have a glossing effect or a sympathetic nod by the general public. Your article brought in a lot of important issues, showed they are relevant to everyone of us, and was very digestible (despite the uncomfortable knot left by the prevalence of health disparities). Thanks for the article.

Candace Rowell January 18, 2012 at 8:32 pm

Thanks Lawrence!

Lok Pokhrel January 18, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Well written, overall! Important environmental issue highlighted. Injustice and inequality are probably rooted in human genome, and should rather be viewed as global issue rather than just a national issue as mentioned in this blog-post, and this discrimination may persist as long as we humans are around. There are many other issues which we need to prioritize for the safeguard of the mankind such as water scarcity, terrorism, religious fanaticism, among many other which World Economic Forum has highlighted recently. The Global Risk Report 2012 can be accessed following this link: Global Risks 2012 – Seventh Edition . The wordings are somewhat awkward such as “According to collected evidence..” instead it can be simplified to: Studies suggest that the Clean Air Act does not offer clean air equally to all” or something in this line. Before using abbreviations such as PM2.5, it is worthy to define in the layman term so that the intended message could be delivered and the post catches more readers. Good job, keep going! Look forward to new posts. Good luck!

Candace Rowell January 18, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Lok – thanks for the comments and the advice. Glad you enjoyed the post!

Selena Strickland January 18, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Very thought provoking, Candace. If memory serves me, there have been some initiatives to educate low-income (predominantly minority) families about asthma triggers- dust mites, cockroach dander. But the injustice of poor air quality presents an issue that “one concerned mama” just can’t tackle on her own.

It is a struggle to decide how to approach this problem. If you move the industries out of low-income areas to less populated rural areas, then are the rural populations being discriminated against?

I believe my own community is dealing with another area of environmental injustice. We are a rural community in south Georgia. We have no central water supply. All water is supplied by wells dug by individual families.

Water in metro Atlanta is provided largely by Lake Lanier. The Army Corps of Engineers released too much water from Lake Lanier, and now there are water shortages in metro Atlanta. State officials want to tap into the aquifers in south Georgia. These aquifers are already taxed by several pulp wood mills in the area. Some wells are going dry already.

If these aquifers are depleted, how do state officials expect rural communities to survive? We will have no access to water but people around Atlanta will have clean cars and manicured lawns. Is this fair?

Environmental injustice takes many forms. What is the answer?

Thank you for sharing this blog. If enough people are aware of the inequities, maybe, just maybe, we will be able to meet somewhere in the middle.

Candace Rowell January 19, 2012 at 8:18 pm

Hey Selena – your memory serves you correctly! There has been some good work done in helping families reduce childhood exposures to asthma triggers. You’re also right in saying that some of the present issues of environmental justice are larger than one concerned parent, or even a group of concerned parents can tackle. The complexities of solutions are a serious challenge. More funding and more research is needed in order to enable scientists to both definitely determine situations of environmental injustice as well as to develop viable solutions to these injustices. Awareness is key. If people can relate to these issues; if people can feel these issues; then people will respond.
Thank you for sharing your story.

Maryse January 20, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Hi Candace! You brought back memories of some of the materials I studied years ago. These are important issues and I’m glad to see someone writing about them. In this case (as opposed to the nine-year old boys & HPV), I probably would have made it past the headline but usually would have come to a full stop and gone away as soon as I got to “As Americans …”
You’ve immediately told me that I’m not your audience (BTW, I’m a Canadian). As I noted in my comment to Suzy, there’s nothing wrong with focusing on a particular audience as long as that’s what you mean to do.

The other issue for me when I’m dealing with this type of material is that a question arises, What next? I’ve been reminded of or been made aware of an issue. Why? Am I supposed to do something?

I am asking you the question but, in fact, I mean it as a more general question. There is an assumption that somehow raising people’s awareness or giving them more information leads to some sort of change or improvement. It’s been my observation that one can have a great deal of knowledge and awareness and still not act or change one’s behaviour. Thanks a lot for the post as it stimulated my thinking to move in a direction it has not followed for a while. Cheers, Maryse

Candace Rowell January 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Maryse – great point on not narrowing the audience. This post very much focused on examples of environmental injustices in the States but these issues exist all over the globe. Another good point on the need to offer readers resources that provide a mechanism to be part of the movement for change. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Catherine OGawa January 21, 2012 at 12:28 pm

The problems are not just with air pollution. Lead poisoning is a prime example of the disproportionate effect of pollution on poorer children. Well after lead-based paints were off the market, older homes with peeling paint were common in inner cities. Young children, who eat anything, would suffer brain damage from high blood levels of lead.

Candace Rowell January 21, 2012 at 1:15 pm

Catherine, you are so right! There are many examples of disproportionate health risks and outcomes – lead being an excellent one. Thanks for reading and providing other readers with another example of environmental injustice.

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