POLLUTION LOCATOR|Environmental Inequality: Assessing the Evidence

Underlying claims of environmental discrimination is the belief that pollution may play an important role in the pattern of disparate health status among the poor and people of color in the United States. Indeed, the socioeconomic stratification of American society is mirrored by disparities in several health indicators; the poor are generally less healthy than the rich, those without a high school diploma are less healthy than the college educated, laborers are more likely to die of heart disease than are members of managerial or professional classes, and people of color suffer disproportionately from chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Moreover, Black workers are more likely to be employed in hazardous occupations resulting in a serious illness or injury than White workers.

The environmental justice movement has fueled a surge of academic and scientific inquiry into the question of environmental inequality in the United States. Research on race and class differences in environmental burdens varies widely, ranging from anecdotal and descriptive studies, to rigorous statistical modeling that quantifies the extent to which race and/or class explain disparities in hazards among diverse communities. Environmental health and exposure indicators in these studies include measurements of proximity to emissions sources (e.g., hazardous waste sites or industrial manufacturers), exposure to specific toxic substances (e.g., pesticides, lead, and outdoor hazardous air pollutants), differences in regulatory enforcement (e.g., Superfund clean-ups), and the distribution of environmental benefits due to regulatory implementation (e.g., clean air, water and access to recreational areas).

Although the studies do not provide a unanimous verdict on the question of environmental discrimination, most of the evidence indicates that there are disparities by race and class in the distribution of environmental hazards, whether defined by facility location, emissions, ambient concentrations of air pollution, or environmental enforcement and clean-up activities.


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