Environmental issues are relevant to your life. Pollution in the environment directly impacts human health, and therefore, your ability to live a full life, unencumbered by physical limitations. Simply put, going to work, school, and taking care of your family can be more difficult if you do not feel well.
“The environment” does not only refer to mountains, oceans, and forests – it includes our homes, workplaces, school buildings, streets, and playgrounds.
Our bodies interact with the environment through the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the food we eat. If our bodies are being polluted, then we are more likely to feel bad and sluggish at work or at school. We might need to buy medicine or undergo expensive medical procedures if our environment pollutes us over time, therefore keeping the environment healthy is about keeping us healthy too, not just the birds and fish.
Think about the environment like your kitchen sink: you use it every day, so you need to keep it clean. If you wait a week, you will have a sink filled with crusty dishes that wind up taking more soap and time than it would have if you had kept it clean all along. In the same way that not being proactive about keeping the sink clean makes more work for us, not being proactive about seemingly minor environmental hazards can make more work for our bodies. For example, asthma can be a small inconvenience for some people, but deadly for others. People with asthma may have long-term control medicines that need to be consumed daily and failure to take one’s asthma pill or inhaler as prescribed can lead to gradual negative impacts that are far worse than dealing with a neglected kitchen sink.
The daily cost of living with asthma or other environmentally related health issues adds up.
The reduction in oxygen caused by asthma can impact a child’s ability to learn, which could be the difference between a child getting an A or B on an assignment or even completing the assignment. Over time, an environmentally related health issue could determine whether a child attends college or not. For our seniors, it could impact how many years they have to watch their grandchildren grow up. Recently, studies have shown a link between exposure to high levels of pollution and increased risk of death from Covid-19.
Inequitable Siting of Polluting Facilities
The quality of our environment directly impacts our health.
For example, wastewater dumped into streams and rivers, or landfills leaking pollution into underground water, can affect the cleanliness of the water that comes into our homes. Many common pollutants can have serious health effects, as shown in Table 1.1 at the bottom of this page. Similarly, power plants, factories, and other polluters emit a host of different air pollutants that, when breathed in, can harm, or even kill people, as shown in Table 1.2 at the bottom of this page.
The reality is that many Georgians do not have the opportunity to live, work, play, and breathe in a healthy environment.
This is because highly polluted areas are not distributed justly. In Georgia, and many parts of the country, pollution sources like landfills, power plants, and waste treatment facilities are frequently placed in communities of color and lower-wealth neighborhoods- instead of being distributed equally throughout the state or placed in areas where they minimize human impacts.
In 2012, GreenLaw published a study analyzing general pollution patterns in metro Atlanta – Fayette, Clayton, Henry, Douglas, Fulton, Dekalb, Rockdale, Paulding, Cobb, Gwinnett, Barrow, Cherokee, Forsyth, and Hall counties. They identified 52 “hot spots” that illustrate how a disproportionate number of polluting sites are located in or near low-wealth and underrepresented/underinvested communities.
Unequal Exposure to Environmental Harms Causes Unequal Health Impacts
Over the past twenty years, research has shown a deeply unequal distribution of deadly environmental impacts.
It is not entirely clear why some people get asthma and others do not, but asthma likely occurs due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In 2006, Black people were two to three times more likely to die from asthma compared with other racial groups.Today, Black children are 500 percent more likely to die from asthma than White children, and have a 250 percent higher hospitalization rate for this condition. This occurs in part because 68 percent of Black people live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant (30 miles being the distance within which the maximum health impacts from living near such a plant are expected to occur), compared to about 56 percent of the White population. These disparate health outcomes can also be explained by three out of five Black and Latino Americans living in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites.
Additionally, more than 69.2 percent of Hispanic children, 61.3 percent of Black children, and 67.7 percent of Asian American children live in areas exceeding EPA ozone standards for air pollution, while only 50.8 percent of White children are subject to these same conditions. Furthermore, University of Minnesota researchers found that Black people and other POC breathe in 38 percent more polluted air than White people. These statistics begin to explain some of the racialized disparity in asthma diagnoses.
Scientists realized that lead pipes poison water as early as the 1880s. By the 1920s, many cities and towns had enacted laws banning or restricting lead pipe usage. In response, the lead industry launched a propaganda campaign to continue selling its poisonous product.
Pipes, however, are not the only source of lead: lead has historically been found in car and truck gasoline emissions, and continues to be present in battery cases, aviation fuel, building materials, burial vault liners, lead crystals, pewter, solder, shielding, computer monitors, ceramic pots and glazes, television components, soil, and even makeup. In addition, though lead paint was banned from home use in 1978, dust and soil in your home could still be contaminated by lead paint.
Children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning and can become poisoned by drinking water sourced through lead pipes or breathing in lead from house dust. They can also be poisoned through the dust carried home by parents who work with lead.
Lead impacts children and adults differently.
When adults are poisoned by lead, they usually suffer damage to their stomach, kidney, brain, or nervous system, and can experience high blood pressure and behavioral problems.
For children, lead harms nearly every bodily organ: it can cause slowed growth, hearing loss, headaches, weakness, muscle issues, memory loss, and increased grogginess. Evidence suggests that the impacts of childhood lead exposure on the brain result in behavior changes that contribute to increased criminal activity because of the way lead adversely impacts the developing brain. These developmental impacts increase impulsivity, aggression, and ADHD. They are likely to lead to substance abuse, suicide, unplanned pregnancy, poor academic performance, poor labor market performance, and difficulty maintaining relationships. For more information about the dangers of lead and how the law regulates lead, see Lead Contamination.
Fetal and Childhood Health:
For pregnant women and fetuses, air pollution is an especially acute problem. Air pollution derails the processes through which the body delivers air to a fetus. It also disrupts the endocrine system, consequently preventing the production of an important protein that regulates pregnancy. Air pollution causes 16,000 premature births in the United States each year. For more information about air pollution, see Air Pollution.
Explaining Inequity by Class
What accounts for the disproportionate siting of polluting facilities in low-wealth and underrepresented communities?
Low-wealth neighborhoods are generally less politically powerful than wealthy neighborhoods. Where wealthier people typically have connections with decision-makers and the resources to organize resistance to the siting of a polluting facility, people without access to like resources have limited options to prevent their exposure.
Some of the facilities that we are referring to include factories, landfills, trash transfer stations, and biosolids facilities. Sometimes facilities that at first seem environmentally friendly, like public transportation depots, can also cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses by burning fuel which emits pollutants.
As previously explained, children and seniors are the most vulnerable to environmental harms because both groups have weaker immune systems than the average adult. Children who attend school in older buildings have increased exposure to lead paint and pesticides used to control rodent and insect infestations. Additionally, if the children are already suffering from malnutrition, their bodies are less able to combat health problems resulting from environmental pollutants. This situation is compounded by the fact that many polluted areas have residents who are less likely to have medical insurance. This prevents them from receiving the appropriate care.
Lastly, living near disproportionate amounts of pollution in what is also called a “Fenceline neighborhood” can be challenging. Homes positioned near pollution and waste facilities are regularly undervalued and suffer from depreciating property values. When deciding to sell, homeowners may struggle to receive their asking price. This can negatively influence their return on investment. Businesses located in polluted areas may struggle with competition and maintaining customers.
Explaining Inequity by Race
The environmental justice movement strives to prevent Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities from being unfairly exposed to harmful environmental conditions. The movement was born in response to a growing awareness that looking at economic class alone did not provide a full explanation for the inequitable siting of polluting facilities.
This led to the recognition of “environmental racism”: the inequitable and disproportionate siting of polluting industries tends to burden underrepresented neighborhoods irrespective of class.
Furthermore, the negative health impacts of this burden are felt most by communities of color. In 2019, the Union of Concerned Scientists showed that Black residents were exposed to 34 percent more vehicle pollution than White residents, Latino residents were exposed to 26 percent more than White communities, and Asian Americans were exposed to 36 percent more air pollution than White communities. Exposure to pollution does not have a direct correlation with income, either. A study in 2008 found that Black households with incomes between $50,000 and $60,000 were more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods than very poor White households with incomes below $10,000.
The environmental justice movement grew out of a desire to remedy these environmental injustices and solve the problems presented by environmental racism. Go to The Environmental Justice Movement for more information about the local and national history of the movement.
Water run-off from major highways, underground fuel storage tanks
Cause damage to the nervous system and the kidney, and other metabolic disruptions
Old pipes and industrial facilities
Causes damage to the brain and other parts of the body’s nervous system, particularly in children
Primarily from air emissions from the burning of coal; mercury settles in water and is consumed by fish, where it is then eaten by humans
Can severely and permanently damage the human nervous system and kidneys Groups most at-risk include fetuses and breast-fed babies (exposed through their mothers) Adults may experience blurred vision as well as numbness of lips, tongue, fingers, and toes and may be at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and infertility
Excessive use of fertilizers causes nitrate contamination of groundwater
Restricts the amount of oxygen reaching the brain, causing the “blue baby” syndrome Also linked to digestive tract cancers
Runoff from farms, backyards, and golf courses
Pesticides containing organophosphates and carbonates affect and damage the nervous system and can cause cancer Some pesticides contain carcinogens that exceed recommended levels and chlorides that cause reproductive and endocrinal damage
Gas stations, major gasoline spills, refineries, fuel storage facilities, industrial facilities
Leaking sewer pipes or sewage treatment facilities
Pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and parasitic worms, are disease-producing agents found in feces
Automobiles, power plants, oil refineries, many industrial facilities
Refers to a suite of 188 listed chemicals ranging from mercury to benzene to dioxin Air toxics have a broad range of health effects: cancer; immune system, neurological, or respiratory damage; developmental delays; reproductive harm
Non-natural sources include the combustion of fossil fuels in power plants and automobiles
Primary contributor to climate change, which has also been linked to increased rates of asthma Climate change can cause severe weather conditions impacting drought, flooding, pests, and other events that impact public health
Primarily from motor vehicles, but also from incomplete burning of any fuel
Weakens the heart’s contractions and lowers the amount of oxygen carried by the blood Can cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, and when very concentrated, even death. When carbon monoxide reaches unhealthy levels, people with heart disease are most at risk
Industrial facilities, industrial waste products, contaminated water or soil, and the sanding or wearing away of old lead-based paint
Causes damage to the brain and other parts of the body’s nervous system; children are most susceptible to the effects of lead
Power plants, large industrial facilities, and motor vehicles
Irritates the nose and throat, especially in people with asthma Increases susceptibility to respiratory infections
Forms in the air from other pollutants—volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (like nitrogen dioxide, above); ozone does not come directly from tailpipes or smokestacks
Irritates the lungs and breathing passages, causing coughing and pain in the chest and throat Increases susceptibility to respiratory infections Effects are more severe in people with asthma and other respiratory ailments Long-term exposure may lead to scarring of lung tissue and lowered lung efficiency
Diesel cars, trucks and buses, power plants, industry, and many other sources
Aggravates existing heart and lung diseases Changes the body’s defenses against inhaled materials Damages lung tissue Chemicals in and on particulates can also be toxic Very fine particulates (called PM2.5, for particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns) can be inhaled deeply into the lungs
Power plants, large industrial facilities, diesel vehicles, oil-burning home heaters
Aggravates existing lung diseases, especially bronchitis Constricts the breathing passages, especially in asthmatic people and people doing moderate to heavy exercise Causes wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing High levels of particulates appear to worsen the effect of sulfur dioxide, and long-term exposures to both pollutants leads to higher rates of respiratory illness