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Connective Issues: A UMass Chan diversity and inclusion blog

Why environmental justice is the business of the health care community

Tuesday, April 23, 2024
By:  Janjay Innis

Environmental justice textDuring Earth Month this April, UMass Chan Medical School will celebrate with the talk, “Why Environmental Justice is a Public Health Issue,” on Tuesday, April 30, at noon on Zoom. The event is presented by the Diversity and Inclusion Office, the Office of Sustainability and the Massachusetts Office of Environmental Affairs. 

Environmental justice is the right to an environment that is safe, healthy and sustainable. Many preventable health issues are caused by unsafe environments. It is important to the health care community because if not addressed, these issues are likely to overwhelm the health care system and cause terminal illness and untimely deaths 

The environmental justice movement began alongside the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Led by people of color, particularly Black people, the movement sought to bring attention to the lack of environmental protections in communities of color. The movement called for the protection of people from high risk and hazardous environments and for the involvement of people in the creation of hazard-free environments where they can thrive.  

Toxic waste sites, pollution and inappropriate land usage are disproportionately found in Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities. Longitudinal studies on racial and socioeconomic disparities have proven that both racial discrimination in zoning and the housing market have made underserved populations more vulnerable to these hazards 

As a result, these communities are at higher risk of developing various cancers, asthma, heart disease, pneumonia and more. The Flint Michigan water crisis, for example, was linked to behavioral changes such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse in residents. And in the small city of Pahokee, Florida, where sugarcane leaves are burned to leave the stalk for harvesting, health risks for low-income residents include immune system disorders and the contamination of water 

Though pushback has been slow due to the lack of economic and political influence, continued exposure to the linkages between where people live and what happens in their surroundings as social determinants of health have caused a new wave of advocacy by those affected the most by it.

In their 2008 article Community Health Workers: Social Justice and Policy Advocates for Community Health and Well-Being published in the American Journal of Public Health, Leda M. Pérez, PhD, and Jacqueline Martinez, MPH, note that, Community health workers can connect people to health care and collect information relevant to policy. They are natural researchers who, as a result of direct interaction with the populations they serve, can recount the realities of exclusion and propose remedies for it. This means that health care workers have a significant role to play in all justice movements as their expertise is trusted to validate pressing matters that lives depend on.  

As we recognize Earth Month and are reminded that environmental justice and health are inextricably linked, let us join at risk communities in amplifying their voices for change because caring for the earth means caring for all living things that inhabit it.