A community’s health depends largely on the environment in which residents live, work and play. One’s health may be more greatly impacted by their zip code than by their genetic code. While multiple factors influence the health of a population, the impact of environmental harms is one of paramount concern to health. Air pollution from a nearby chemical factory, lead in a community’s water systems, or occupational exposures to silica dust at a local coal mine are among many environmental factors that cause negative impacts on the public’s health. Such harmful environmental exposures can exacerbate already existing health disparities especially among low income, tribal and minority populations who often suffer a disproportionate share of negative environmental impacts. These health disparities can exist based on race, ethnicity, location of residence, or income, among other factors. They arise when health outcomes vary between populations based on social determinants of health and risk of environmental exposures.For example, a 2011 study found that Asians and Hispanics were most likely to reside in counties that failed to meet ozone standards.Additionally, black children are more likely to suffer from asthma than white children; and are twice as likely to be hospitalized and four times as likely to die from asthma.
Since many environmental harms are more likely to impact low income, minority and tribal populations, environmental justice aims to maintain a healthful environment, especially for those populations who are traditionally negatively impacted by environmental exposures. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Achieving environmental justice can result in a reduction of environmental health disparities. This issue brief outlines existing and potential legal tools to support environmental justice, such as the use of health impact assessments, environmental reviews conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act, and grant funding to support environmental justice.