Environmental racism is a type of inequality where people in Communities of Color face a disproportionate risk of exposure to pollution and related health conditions.

One way this happens is through policies and practices that place industrial facilities in or near residential areas that mostly house People of Color.

The term environmental racism has existed formally since a series of protests brought about action in the 1980s.

The United States General Accounting Office first recognized environmental racism in a 1983 report that compared the racial distribution of people within hazardous waste environments, such as plastic plants, highways, and power stations. They found that 75% of communities near harmful landfill sites were predominantly Black.

Since the initial report, researchers have identified more environmental burdens causing racial inequality. These include disproportionally poor water quality, a lack of sanitation, and high exposure to carbon dioxide emissions in Communities of Color. Such conditions can cause health problems, including different types of cancer and respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

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The proximity of Communities of Color to hazardous environments is a systematic issue that affects civil rights. This is because it is easier and cheaper for policies and practices to place industrial facilities in communities where there are fewer resources to fight back with.

To an extent, wealth also contributes to exposure to pollutants, with low income families of any ethnicity at greater risk than higher income families. However, research suggests that the association between environmental hazards and race is stronger than that between environmental hazards and wealth. This makes environmental inequality primarily a racial issue.

In this article, learn more about environmental racism, including research into the topic, some examples, and the global impact of this issue.

A 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used emission particles to compare the environmental burden of pollution across different communities in the U.S.

The research found that the burden was 35% higher for people living in poverty in general and 28% higher for People of Color. Black people, specifically, had a burden level 54% greater than that of the overall population.

There is an increasing number of case studies showing how Communities of Color have disproportionally high exposure to health and environmental risks.

Issues relating to environmental racism are increasing as climate change is exacerbating environmental events. This article highlights three prominent examples of environmental racism in the U.S.:

  • the Flint water crisis
  • arsenic contamination in San Joaquin Valley
  • “Cancer Valley” in Louisiana

Flint water crisis

In 2014, the city of Flint, MI, changed its water source to the Flint River to save money. However, it did not use proper treatment processes for the water supply. This exposed the city’s 100,000 residents — most of whom were Black — to bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Legionella and contaminants such as lead, which is a neurotoxin.

The poor water quality caused the water to be foul smelling and discolored. Even though people were experiencing hair loss and skin conditions, the city did not take action for 18 months. During this time, 12 people died from Legionnaires’ disease.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission identified the situation as a crisis that stemmed from a history of segregation in Flint, whereby Communities of Color were restricted to living in areas with substandard resources.

Arsenic contamination in San Joaquin Valley

Arsenic is a chemical element that occurs naturally in groundwater but is exacerbated by agricultural activities.

In humans, exposure to arsenic can cause cancer in the:

In San Joaquin Valley, CA, industrial uses — such as wood treatment processes and prevalence in pesticides — add to the natural concentration of arsenic. Irrigation and drainage activities then cause the arsenic to spread. It collects in shallower levels of groundwater.

However, in San Joaquin Valley, the main source of drinking water for around 1 million residents is groundwater, with the worst exposure for low income communities and Communities of Color.

A 2012 study found that arsenic contamination in San Joaquin Valley was lower in areas of higher homeownership and that People of Color had disproportionally higher exposure to harmful arsenic levels.

‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana

A 2021 report highlights concerns about industrializing the stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, dubbed “Cancer Alley,” in the southern state of Louisiana.

The report suggests that pollutants from current developments are putting local people, most of whom are Black, at risk of cancer and respiratory conditions, among other illnesses. This suggests that federal environmental regulations are not protecting the residents.

However, developers are continuing to industrialize the area. For example, the developer FG LA LLC gained approval to begin the “Sunshine Project” in 2018. This project is estimated to more than double the risk of local people developing cancer.

This is a development that will produce the following products:

  • polyethylene
  • polypropylene
  • polymer
  • ethylene glycol

The Sunshine Project is set to produce carbon emissions so significant that the annual carbon dioxide production in a single parish is projected to be greater than what is produced in 113 countries combined.

As well as having direct effects, the development is expected to accelerate climate change and contribute to the global plastic waste issue.

The problems in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” are current and clear examples of environmental racism. The industrialization places the largely African American population at a disproportionally higher risk of developing health conditions, violating the following human rights:

  • right to equality and nondiscrimination
  • right to life
  • right to health
  • right to breathe clean air
  • right to an adequate standard of living
  • cultural rights

Environmental racism is not limited to the U.S. It is also occurring on a global scale.

For instance, end-of-life electrical waste, or e-waste, can be hazardous if people do not dispose of it correctly. This is because the products release toxins. However, according to a paper from 2014, many countries deal with the problem by shipping 75–80% of e-waste to countries within Africa and Asia for disposal.

Additionally, the same paper reports that in 2003, the United Kingdom had been transporting undeclared e-waste to countries in Africa and Asia, such as India, and that the U.S. had been disposing of 80% of its e-waste illegally.

Another international example is the 1984 incident in Bhopal, India, where a pesticide plant belonging to the American corporation Union Carbide leaked 27 tons of methyl isocyanate gas. This created a toxic vapor that killed 25,000 people and caused health conditions in over 120,000 people.

The incident resulted from neglect for the factory, as Union Carbide did not maintain the plant. The corporation refused to face trial, and it never cleaned up the site. The leak continues to affect the health of residents today.

As with other components of systematic racism, environmental racism is an issue that requires action on national and global scales if equal rights are to be achieved.

Environmental racism is a form of racial inequality that is present in the U.S. and across the globe. The impact of environmentally hazardous plants and materials has adverse effects on the health of Communities of Color and low income populations, often causing cancer, respiratory illnesses, and other health conditions.

The Flint water crisis, arsenic contamination in San Joaquin Valley, and “Cancer Valley” in Louisiana are prominent current events that highlight the detrimental impacts of environmental racism in the U.S.

National and global action is required to address environmental racism and promote racial equality.