Public health is intimately connected to our environment. Toxins and other pollutants present both outdoors and indoors contribute to chronic diseases, such as certain types of cancers and chronic obstructive lung disorders. The design of a community– from the location of sidewalks and bike paths to the type of construction materials used in building — can also affect health. Scientists are constantly learning more about the relationship between exposure to elements in the environment and public health.
A community’s health depends largely on the environment in which residents live, work and play. While multiple factors influence the health of a population, the impact of environmental harms is of significant concern. 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. 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.
The Flint, Michigan, water crisis was a manmade disaster that resulted in the poisoning of thousands of children and adults after lead leached into the city’s drinking water; sadly, the harm to Flint residents is still impacting the community today. In this Q&A, Network senior attorney Colleen Healy Boufides, discusses a report she co-authored that examines the legal failures that lead to the crisis as well as what can be learned with regard to public health practice to protect other communities.
A climate and health specialist contacted the Network for information about resources related to preemption of local laws by states, specifically state-level preemption of bans on the use of plastic bags by grocery stores, convenience stores and other establishments.
Federal, state and local public health officials enforce laws and regulations preventing involuntary exposure to known toxins, including imposing requirements for drinking water, setting certain standards for safe water for swimming, boating or fishing, and requiring landlords to provide lead-free housing to tenants. Knowledge about the link between the built environment and obesity has contributed to efforts to mandate that new communities be built to include access to safe places where children can play and adults can exercise.
State and local public health practitioners dealing with environmental health can be confronted with a number of legal issues. Because the federal government has adopted a comprehensive regulatory scheme for environmental protection, state and local governments may be limited in their ability to pass laws that impose different standards than those imposed by federal law. Likewise, the existence of state laws may restrict passage of local laws. Federal environmental laws also regulate the ability of a state or local government to bring a lawsuit against an alleged polluter, and the right of individuals or groups to bring suit may also be regulated by federal and state law.
The Network for Public Health Law is prepared to provide technical assistance to public health practitioners developing and implementing effective environmental health laws and policies. The Network has access to top-ranked experts in environmental law who can bring decades of experience in studying, developing and advocating for environmental policy change to improve public health.
For legal technical assistance and support with environmental public health:
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The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, please consult specific legal counsel. For more information on the type of legal assistance the Network can provide, please see frequently asked questions.