So, what is environmental injustice?
A regular day for most people involves taking a shower using clean water and going outside and breathing in fresh air. We don’t think much of it because we expect to have clean water and air in the United States. Sometimes we will hear in the news about a community who lost their environmental rights, which is access to clean natural resources.
The Flint water crisis is a recent example of this. The news informed us of what had happened and how the community and public health were impacted. But eventually the media and society move on, and most people go back to the assumption that everyone in in the US is living in healthy environments. This is actually not the case as there are communities still living in unsafe environments that are causing increased health problems. Children especially are being hurt by this.
Many children in the US are living in unhealthy environments. This can harm their well-beings because they are being exposed to toxins while they are still developing. Particular groups of children are more likely to be in this situation than others. This is a result of environmental injustice.
Environmental injustice occurs when harmful environmental factors are impacting the health and wellness of some communities more than others. Children in the US who are most affected by this include those who have lower socioeconomic status and minorities.
Let’s take this statistic for instance: 11.2% of black children are poisoned by lead compared to only 2.3% of white children in the US. This is an environmental injustice because children are being unequally exposed to lead based on their race. This creates public health crises that are very important to be aware of and address.
This post will dive further into lead exposure, along with two other dangers that could potentially be in your or your children’s environments.
The prevalence of Pb
Unequal exposure to lead among different populations of children is an environmental injustice that occurs in the US. As mentioned earlier, we have heard about elevated levels of lead in children due to contaminated water in the news, but it is actually more likely for kids to be exposed to the toxin from lead based paint found in older homes.
When the paint is peeling and chipping in rundown houses it poses a risk to the residents. For instance, toddler aged kids might try to pick up paint chips and eat them which can give them lead poisoning.
Research has shown that there are no levels of lead that can be considered safe in children. So, there should be no lead in our environments because it poses a risk for toxicity, especially in kids. Exposure to lead can result in:
- Decreased IQ
- Increased rates of ADHD
- Poor decision making
Very low levels of lead can cause these consequences. This is significant because exposure at low levels often goes without notice in children. This means symptoms are not monitored so they end up being untreated.
Neighborhood segregation and discrimination has grouped populations of people into lower quality houses in particular areas of cities. As a result, children living in poverty and black and Hispanic children are more likely to have lead poisoning. This is because they are more likely to live in houses that still contain lead. So, these children are at a higher risk for cognitive damage that is caused by lead because they have more exposure to it.
What you can’t see can still hurt you
Another environmental injustice that hurts the health of children is air pollution. This comes from things such as traffic, chemicals, and industry. Industry causes pollution especially in the communities where their facilities are built. Factories and plants get built far too close to where we call home.
For instance, in West Virginia a coal silo and processing plant was built about 150 feet away from an elementary school. So, students and faculty at this elementary school were spending five days of the week very close to a facility producing a lot of pollution. How would you feel sending your child off to school knowing they would be breathing in toxic chemicals? Hopefully not good, because pollution can cause major health issues.
Children all across the US are exposed to hazardous air pollutants in their schools that can cause cancer and other negative health conditions. Although, this exposure is not equal. Students in school districts with higher proportions of black children were found to have a higher lifetime cancer risk because of pollutants in their schools.
So, black children are disproportionately at risk for cancer because our schools in the US are polluted unequally by race. This sounds like another environmental injustice to me.
Air pollution has also been found to cause inflammation in the brain that can lead to tissue damage and decreased cognitive function. As previously stated, black children have higher levels of pollution in their schools. This means they would be more susceptible to brain damage in addition to cancer compared to their white counterparts. Schools need to be a safe place for kids, not a danger zone.
The disparity in pollution is said to be a result of these school districts having less funding than their majority white counterparts. Less money means they have less resources to create a healthy environment for their students. As a result, children in poorly funded school districts, are disproportionately facing health consequences caused by contaminated air. This is an example of an environmental injustice because the conditions of children’s schools and consequent health outcomes are not equal.
How your neighborhood affects your health
Asthma is very prevalent in children living in the US and is caused and aggravated by current environmental injustices. Many things that could go unnoticed in our houses are actually common contributors to asthma. Here are a few housing conditions that can impact people living with this illness:
- Flaking paint
- Holes in the walls
Older, more rundown houses are more likely to experience these factors and they are usually found in specific neighborhoods or housing buildings because of neighborhood segregation and discrimination. This poses a risk for asthma in the children living in these houses.
Another factor that has been found to increase asthma rates is violent crime. This is because dangerous neighborhoods keep kids from playing outdoors. So, they must be inside where they are facing more exposure to the unhealthy conditions that may exist in their homes. These factors cause children living below the poverty line to experience a higher asthma prevalence. This is because this population is more likely to live in older homes that are in more dangerous neighborhoods. Family income should not be a determinant of who has asthma, but it is because of unequal living conditions.
When families are living in unsafe conditions, they are often unable to move or cannot afford to treat the issue. To help improve this the government could increase the monitoring of housing conditions. Also, community programs that assist people in making home improvements could be helpful.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asthma was the underlying cause of 178 children’s deaths in 2019. This is a disease that can cause early morbidity, so it is important to lower asthma risks. Unsafe and unequal housing conditions are threatening the wellbeing of many children in the US.
As stated before, environmental injustice is the unequal conditions in the environment that hurt the health of certain groups of people. It is an injustice because it does not affect the population fairly.
Race and socioeconomic status are determinants of who is affected by environmental injustice. So, children in the US who are low-income and black are harmed by this issue more than their counterparts. It is important we address this, so all children have an equal chance at living healthy lives.
Some proposed solutions to this public health issue include policy making and increasing access to healthcare. I think community outreach programs would be very useful for families who could use assistance in making home improvements. Overall, it is important that we take action to protect children because they are unable to protect themselves.