Racism is Making People Sick

Mother of four Tanisha Ammons lives in west side of Chicago in a working class neighborhood. Unlike most homes that remain silent and peaceful at night, her home becomes full of distress as her children battle to breathe. All four of her children, ages two to eight, have been diagnosed with asthma. In addition to herself and her kids, members of Ammons’ extended family, including her sister, cousins, mother, and grandmother, also suffer from asthma, which constrict inflamed airways. The immediate and extended families are not the only ones that seem to be impacted in their community. Others include Jamaal, Citron, and Torreon. Jamaal is one five medications for asthma but his asthma is still not well controlled. Especially in the summer months his asthma flares up due to excessive heat and exercise. Citron missed 35 days of school last year because of asthma. His mother, who had two cousins die of asthma, can’t work due to her son’s frequent and easily triggered attacks thus further placing financial burden on the family. Torren, who is five, currently has the pulmonary function 45 percent of what it should be. Unfortunately, Torren’s shocking condition is not something out of the ordinary in this community. Because of this he can not play outside with the other kids due to his mother’s fear of an asthma attack. In Chicago the hospitalization rates for asthma are twice the national average. While there are numerous causes for asthma such as genes but enough instances of these alarming cases in a single community may pose people to ask the question: What’s really going on here?

Out of all the children affected by asthma living in inner cities, African American and Latinx kids are the most at risk [1]. African American children are four times more likely to die of asthma and three times more likely to be hospitalized than their white counterparts. In addition, as many as one in three Latinx children have been found to have asthma in some predominantly Latinx neighborhoods.

Marginalized communities of color are most impacted by hazardous pollutants and have higher rates of negative health outcomes. What we see here is that people of color are disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards as they are more likely to live near polluters. According to environmental justice organizations such as Campus Coalition Concerning Chester (C4), from 1996 to 1999 there are “many studies have shown that waste facilities (particularly hazardous and nuclear waste facilities) tend to be located in communities of color, above and beyond class considerations. When factoring out the economic class of a community, race is still shown to be a significant factor. Middle class communities of color will end up with more waste facilities than poor white communities tend to have” [2].

Originally synonymous with environmental racism, the environmental justice movement came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s, though its roots extend further back to earlier social justice and civil rights movements [3,4,5].

Environmental justice is defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all individuals regardless of race, color, national origin, or income in relation to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” [6]. Community and non-profit organizations, especially those which arose in response to the events of the Environmental Justice movement, also adopted many of the goals set by the EPA’s environmental justice definition.

In February of 2018, a study conducted by the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Assessment concluded that people of color and individuals under the poverty line are more likely to be exposed to pollutants such as particulate matter [7].  Particulate matter is defined as a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air [8]. These small microparticles are termed fine particulate matter which has a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller. Fine particulate matter is extremely harmful as they are so small that they can enter the lungs and even the bloodstream, thus negatively impacting the heart and lungs [7]. According to the EPA, particulate matter, and more particularly fine particles (PM2.5) is a known contributor to “aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, premature death, heart attacks, and irregular heartbeat” [7]. This study also found that “black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites”[9]. Additionally, the paper’s authors claimed “a focus on poverty to the exclusion of race may be insufficient to meet the needs of all burdened populations,” which further provides evidence that race may have a stronger effect on pollutant exposure than poverty. A 2012 article in Environmental Health Perspectives titled “Environmental Inequality in Exposures to Airborne Particulate Matter Components in the United States,” found that overall levels of particulate matter exposure for people of color were higher than those for white people [10]. Another 2016 study found that segregation is largely associated with unequal exposures to air pollutions. Authors of the study further concluded such disparities in air pollution may also be highly linked to racial and ethnic disparities in health [11].

Let's take a look at the effects on communities in our own backyard…

Chester, PA, just 15 miles southwest of Philadelphia, has a 71.3% African American population as well as a significant percentage of low income residents [12]. Chester is home to the nation's largest trash incinerator, a plant owned by Covanta that burns up to 3,510 tons of waste per day [13]. It was found that only 1.5% of the waste Covanta burns is from Chester, while the other 98.5% waste comes from Delaware County, Philadelphia, New York, New Jersey, and beyond [14]. Out of Covanta’s other six incinerators in the state, the one located in Chester has the least amount of pollution control. Consequently, the company has made little to no efforts to address the significant amount of emissions and pollutants released by the incinerator such as removing nitrogen oxides (NOx) that cause asthma. Covanta is also one of the leading polluters in the eastern Pennsylvania region for mercury, lead, dioxins, and other toxins that have been found to contribute to cancers, birth defects, and learning disabilities. According to the Delco Alliance for Environmental Justice “race is more correlated with distribution of toxic pollution in Delaware County than income, poverty, childhood poverty, education, job classification or home ownership”. 15 In addition to Covanta, DELCORA sewage sludge serves as a major other sources of toxic pollutants in the air and water [15].  

All of these infrastructures drastically influence the health of Chester residents and other communities of color across the United States. Chester has the highest percentage of low birth weights in the state. In addition, the rates of mortality and lung cancer are 60% higher than in the rest of Delaware county. Also, 60 % of the children in Chester had unacceptably high levels of lead in their blood [1].

Under the Trump Administration the EPA has already taken multiple steps back while forcing budget cuts on its Environmental Justice program, further reducing the efforts and agency of EJ workers. The dismantling of the institutions put in place to investigate and address these environmental health injustices will cause the conditions. Overall, there needs to be recognition that there are interconnected environmental, social, and socioeconomic factors that influence health. From the water people drink to the air they breathe, people of color are quite literally dying because of environmental policies built on predispositions about race.

[1] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2005/03/asthma-trap/

[2] http://www.ejnet.org/chester/ewall_article.html

[3] Carder, E. F. (n.d.). The American Environmental Justice Movement. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/enviro-j/

[4] Perez, A. C., Grafton, B., Mohai, P., Hardin, R., Hintzen, K., & Orvis, S. (2015). Evolution of the environmental justice movement: Activism, formalization and differentiation. Environmental Research Letters,10(10). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/10/105002

[5] Bullard, R. D. (2000). Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder: Westview Press.



[8] https://www.epa.gov/pm-pollution/particulate-matter-pm-basics#PM


[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3546368/


[12] https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/chestercitypennsylvania/RHI225217#viewtop

[13] http://www.energyjustice.net/incineration/usplants

[14] http://www.ejnet.org/chester/

[15] http://www.ejnet.org/chester/delco-ej.pdf