Silent Discrimination: Issues of Environmental Justice

by Candace Rowell on January 16, 2012

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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