Where You Live Affects Your Health

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.[1]

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.[2]


Inequitable Siting of Polluting Facilities

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.

Explaining Inequity by Class

Explaining Inequity by Race

Table 1.1: Some Common Water Pollutants[18]

PollutantWhere It Comes FromHealth Effects
Heavy metalsWater run-off from major highways, underground fuel storage tanksCause damage to the nervous system and the kidney, and other metabolic disruptions
LeadOld pipes and industrial facilitiesCauses damage to the brain and other parts of the body’s nervous system, particularly in children
MercuryPrimarily from air emissions from the burning of coal; mercury settles in water and is consumed by fish, where it is then eaten by humansCan 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
NitratesExcessive use of fertilizers causes nitrate contamination of groundwaterRestricts the amount of oxygen reaching the brain, causing the “blue baby” syndrome Also linked to digestive tract cancers
PesticidesRunoff from farms, backyards, and golf coursesPesticides 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
PetrochemicalsGas stations, major gasoline spills, refineries, fuel storage facilities, industrial facilitiesCause cancer
SewageLeaking sewer pipes or sewage treatment facilitiesPathogens, including viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and parasitic worms, are disease-producing agents found in feces
SolventsDry cleaners, industrial facilities, degreasing operationsCause cancer

Table 1.2: Some Common Air Pollutants[19]

PollutantWhere It Comes FromHealth Effects
Air toxicsAutomobiles, power plants, oil refineries, many industrial facilitiesRefers 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
Carbon dioxideNon-natural sources include the combustion of fossil fuels in power plants and automobilesPrimary 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
Carbon monoxidePrimarily from motor vehicles, but also from incomplete burning of any fuelWeakens 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
LeadIndustrial facilities, industrial waste products, contaminated water or soil, and the sanding or wearing away of old lead-based paintCauses damage to the brain and other parts of the body’s nervous system; children are most susceptible to the effects of lead
Nitrogen dioxidePower plants, large industrial facilities, and motor vehiclesIrritates the nose and throat, especially in people with asthma Increases susceptibility to respiratory infections
OzoneForms 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 smokestacksIrritates 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
ParticulatesDiesel cars, trucks and buses, power plants, industry, and many other sourcesAggravates 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
Sulfur dioxidePower plants, large industrial facilities, diesel vehicles, oil-burning home heatersAggravates 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

[1] Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America,  https://www.aafa.org/asthma-treatment/.

[2] Katherine Bagley, Connecting the Dots Between Environmental Injustice and the Coronavirus, Yale Environment 360 (May 7, 2020), https://e360.yale.edu/features/connecting-the-dots-between-environmental-injustice-and-the-coronavirus.

[3] GreenLaw, The Patterns of Pollution: A Report on Demographics and Pollution in Metro Atlanta 23 (2012).

[4] Centers for Disease Control, AsthmaStats (2018), https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/asthma_stats/documents/AsthmStat_Mortality_2001-2016-H.pdf.

[5] Lois Parshley, The deadly mix of Covid-19, air pollution, and inequality, explained, Vox (April 11, 2020), https://www.vox.com/2020/4/11/21217040/coronavirus-in-us-air-pollution-asthma-black-americans, citing https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad381.pdf.

[6] Robert Bullard et al., Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: Why Race Still Matters After All of These Years 38 Lewis & Clark 371,379 (2008).

[7] Robert Bullard, Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters, 49 Phylon No. 3/4 at 151, 160 (Autumn-Winter, 2001).

[8] Robert Bullard, African Americans Need a Strong and Independent Federal EPA, OpEdNews.com (Feb. 21, 2017), https://www.opednews.com/articles/African-Americans-Need-a-S-by-Robert-Bullard-African-Americans_Black-History-Month_Civil-Rights-Violations_Climate-170221-71.html.

[9] Id. citing Lara Clark et al., National Patterns in Environmental Injustice and Inequality: Outdoor NO2 Air Pollution in the United States. PLOS ONE 9(4): e94431 (2014).

[10] Harriet Washington, A Terrible Thing To Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind 68 (2019).

[11] Id. at 70-85.

[12] Lindsay Emer, Association of Childhood Blood Lead Levels with Firearm Violence Perpetration and Victimization 1 (2017), available at https://dc.uwm.edu/etd/1610/.

[13] Linda Gorman, The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Adult Crime, National Bureau of Economic Research (May 2008), https://www.nber.org/digest/may08/w13097.html.

[14] Harriet Washington, A Terrible Thing To Waste: Environmental Racism and Its Assault on the American Mind 174-175 (2019).

[15] Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, The MTA, Bus Depots and Race, The Nation (Oct. 17, 2003), https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/mta-bus-depots-and-race/.

[16] Lina Zeldovich, Environmental Racism and the Coronavirus Pandemic, JSTOR Daily (Aug. 11, 2020),  https://daily.jstor.org/environmental-racism-and-the-coronavirus-pandemic/.

[17] Linda Villarosa, Pollution Is Killing Black Americans. This Community Fought Back. New York Times (July 28, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/magazine/pollution-philadelphia-black-americans.html.

[18] See Water Quality Permitting and Protecting Your Drinking Water for more on water pollution.

[19] See Air Pollution for more on air pollution.