On April 22, 1970, 20 million people across the United States celebrated the first Earth Day. The one-day event began as a grassroots demonstration to send a message to public officials about the importance of protecting the environment. This movement eventually led to national legislation such as the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. Learn more about Earth Day.

Race matters when we talk about the environment

Protecting the environment also means protecting the people impacted by climate change, pollution and more. Communities of color—Black communities in particular—commonly experience environmental racism and bear the unequal burden of environmental harms. Generations of individual and systemic racism has led to discriminatory housing policies resulting in the increased political power of affluent white neighborhoods and the disenfranchisement of neighborhoods with a majority of Black and Brown residents. Communities with vulnerable populations are generally less expensive and have weaker environmental protections which are exploited by industries that omit toxic pollutants, leading to contaminated air, water and food.

“America is segregated and so is pollution… the people with power or money get more protection,” says Dr. Robert Bullard, professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a founder of environmental justice. “When certain populations are somehow provided less protection, it’s because of race. Everyone deserves a clean, healthy, sustainable and livable environment.”

The impact on health and wellness

The disproportionate exposure to poor environmental conditions leads to increased health issues for people of color. For example, the EPA reports that air pollution in racially segregated areas is associated with “premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, [and] increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing.” Air pollution can also lead to higher rates of diabetes.

Other environmental impacts on health include:

  • Poor water quality
  • Food insecurity
  • Barriers to safe public transportation, walkways and roadways
  • Unsafe housing
  • Inequitable land use and site planning (such as where to build a new industrial plant)
  • Barriers to health care and information
  • The impact of natural disasters and climate change

Community health centers like Neighborcare Health help ensure that the people living in communities impacted by environmental injustice have access to health care services and public health information. By meeting people where they are, we’re able to help treat asthma, high-blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic conditions caused by or made worse by pollution and other environmental factors.

What is environmental justice?

While many milestones have been achieved, there is still a long way to go until the environment is protected for all. Environmental justice plays an important role in the health and wellness of low-income communities and communities of color. The environment will only truly be protected when the people who live, work and play in communities negatively impacted by environmental factors are included in the development, implementation, and enforcement of laws, regulations, and policies. 

Here is a list of resources if you would like to learn more or get involved: