Making the Case for Environmental Justice

“The environment is one of the leading determinants of health and well-being. Where we are born, live, work, go to school, and play are important factors for our health,” said Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, Chief Medical Officer, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Gracia goes on to detail the efforts of HHS to improve the health of all Americans, “especially for those who are least able to help themselves.”

Much of the discussion at SXSWeco has centered around urbanization, reducing carbon and generally planning for a more energy efficient landscape in the future, but Dr. Gracia reminds us that there is cause for concern right now at the micro level in our homes and neighborhoods. That we need to make changes not only for the environment, but for our own health.

Gracia goes on to say that studies have shown that harmful elements in our every day environment like mold, dust mites, pests, air pollution, unsafe work conditions and the lack of areas for outside play can cause chronic illnesses like asthma, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, mental illness and injuries.

Two studies in the 1980s showed that the majority of hazardous waste sites were located in low-income areas, and spotlighted the disproportionate burden on those neighborhoods. There was an outcry and call to action for members of those communities and communities across America to notice, take action, and demand change. In 1994, President Clinton signed an executive order mandating that every federal agency make achieving environmental justice part of its mission.

HHS defined their environmental justice strategy in 1995 and subsequently developed more than 70 programs to support it. To date, these programs have trained more than 8,000 people and more than 5,000 have been placed into jobs. “This is an example of how we are working to create cleaner, healthier communities by cleaning up contaminated properties and at the same time providing economic opportunity and employment.”

There is still more work to be done. Minorities are still more likely to live in areas that do not meet basic air safety standards and neighborhoods, that have fewer grocery stores and less access to affordable, healthy foods, less space for safe play, and less space and opportunity for walking and biking.

HHS’ vision for environmental justice is a nation that equitably promotes healthy community environment and protects the health of all people. Gracia emphasizes that it’s about building healthier, resilient communities where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential for health.

In their 2011 Draft HHS Environmental Justice Strategy, HHS has updated its strategy, and plans to address these problems in four ways:

  • Policy development and dissemination
  • Education and training
  • Research and Data Collection, Analysis and Utilization
  • Services

As we look forward, it’s important not to neglect these changes that could have a big impact on health in many areas. Some are high profile changes that are on the green movement radar, but some of the small ones shouldn’t be ignored. Allowing people to be afflicted by these preventable illnesses exacerbates our health problems needlessly and squanders the potential health of our citizens.

[Image credit: Flatbush Gardener, Flickr]

Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at and @anewell3p on Twitter.

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