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Racism in the Air, Water, and Where We Live: Environmental Racism

The roots of current systemic racism in the United States have been at the forefront of our minds and dominating headlines across all sources of media in recent weeks. In conjunction with the inequalities which have rightfully been given more attention, it is imperative to consider another long-standing part of American history: environmental racism. Environmental racism is a term for the fact that minority neighborhoods possess a disproportionate amount of environmental hazards, including landfills, toxic waste sites, and various other sources of pollution. Environmental racism is included in the broader term ‘environmental injustice’, which refers to both the racial and class aspects that lead to environmental inequality. Environmental racism was first coined by the environmental justice movement, which developed in the United States throughout the 1970s and 1980s to combat these stark inequalities. From that time until now, research has repeatedly demonstrated the shocking reality that environmental hazards are not equally distributed in this country, with people of color and those of low socioeconomic status living with a greater share of pollution than white and richer people. This burden carried by marginalized groups of people has known adverse health effects that are both acute and can negatively impact lifelong health and wellness.

In Afton, North Carolina in 1982, protestors blocked the delivery of 6,000 truckloads of toxic soil containing PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) destined for a landfill in the predominantly poor, Black community. This event was one of the first to draw attention to the environmental racism that was present in the United States. In 1987, the landmark report Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites was published (1). What did they find was the biggest predictor of whether or not someone lived near a toxic waste facility? Race. The study confirmed the unsettling correlation many had already suspected in places like Afton, North Carolina: race was the most significant predictor of the location of hazardous waste sites, and was consistent across the entire nation. There was also a correlation between socioeconomic status and the location of hazardous waste facilities, but race was more significant, and this remained true after controlling for urbanization and regional differences. The results from this report further contributed to the growing national awareness of this issue, and was a catalyst for the desire for change against environmental racism.

This movement led to the signing of the historic Executive Order 12898 on February 11, 1994 entitled “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.”(2) This order required federal agencies to make environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority and low income populations. It has been 26 years since this Executive Order was signed.

Sadly, today, research has shown that environmental racism persists and pervades all aspects of Black American’s lives. Their lives are impacted by housing that is inundated with environmental hazards such as poor air quality, dangerous water quality, and close proximity hazardous waste sites - from schools with asbestos problems to playgrounds with lead paint. The twentieth anniversary of the Toxic Wastes and Race report led to the Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Why Race Still Matters after All These Years report that reevaluated what progress was made over the last 20 years (3). This report demonstrates that people of color are actually more concentrated around our nation’s hazardous waste facilities than was previously shown. As mentioned before, this burden on people of color does not include just toxic waste facilities, but arguably all the hazardous and unwanted environmental byproducts that our society produces. A more recent study published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2018 investigated exposure to particulate matter, a known toxic air pollutant with numerous adverse health outcomes, including asthma, heart attacks, and even premature death. This report found low-income communities and communities of color are, once again, disproportionately impacted by this environmental toxin (4). Communities below the poverty line have a 35 percent higher burden from particulate matter emissions, and even worse, Black people were found to have a 54 percent higher burden of this air pollutant than the overall population. These reports, and many others like them, indicate that environmental racism continues to be a problem in America -- and some argue the problem is larger than before.

The systems, institutions, and history that have led to the injustice and racism in the U.S. today runs deep; and environmental racism shows it runs everywhere—in the water we drink, the air we breathe, and where we carry out our lives. Marginalized communities already face health disparities, which are undoubtedly exacerbated by the negative health impacts of the toxic burdens of environmental racism. In a time where we all hope for change and enlightenment, we cannot forget to remember that environmental racism is a place we must focus on for change.


Commission for Racial Justice United Church of Christ. (1987). Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites.

Bullard, R. D., Mohai, P., Saha, R., & Wright, B. (2008). Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Why Race Still Matters After All of These Years. Environmental Law, 38(2), 371 - 411.

Exec. Order No. 12898, 3 C. F. R. 7629 (1994).

Mikati, I., Benson, A. F., Luben, T. J., Sacks, J. D., & Richmond-Bryant, J. (2018). Disparities in distribution of particulate matter emission sources by race and poverty status. AJPH, 108(4), 480 - 485.

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