Environmental (In)justice: The Link Between Poverty and Pollution
6 min read
The presence of factories surrounding urban centres in developed societies leads to the degradation of the environment, which has direct links to human health. These environmental hazards are not distributed evenly between various groups of people in these neighbourhoods. Certain demographics are significantly more likely to experience environmental illnesses due to factors such as poverty, age, and racial or ethnic identity - referred to as environmental racism. This is the idea that historically disadvantaged communities live in areas that are disproportionately impacted by contamination and pollution as a result of inequitable laws stemming from racism and colonization (Konsmo & Kahealani, 2015). These groups are subjected to toxic conditions at rates far exceeding those experienced by the general public. As a result, it is arguable that the greatest threat to human health in developed societies is the presence of industrial factories in low-income neighbourhoods. Air pollution, water pollution, and structural inequalities are all factors that result from these factories and contribute to the health status of individuals in these communities.
Pollution is considered to be a major source of undesirable compounds that enter the environment. These contaminants are dangerous solids, liquids, or gases that are produced in high concentrations and deteriorate the quality of our environment. Anthropogenic activities damage the environment by contaminating drinking water, air, and soil. Specifically, anthropogenic air pollution, such as fossil fuel burning, is one of the most severe public health threats presently, accounting for approximately 9 million deaths each year (World Health Organization, 2019). Fine particulate matter (PM) from these activities can travel through the air and enter the body, easily accessing the bloodstream and causing many severe diseases (Kelishadi and Poursafa, 2010). According to a study by Ohio State University (2019) in the US, PM from environmental air pollution is more toxic in non-white and low-income neighbourhoods than in affluent white areas. Commonly, low-income, minority communities are aggregated near air pollution zones such as industrial facilities and highways. For example, it has been found that in the United States, 38.1% of African-Americans live within a mile of industrial plants, compared to 28.4% of White Americans (Mohai et al., 2009). The effects of long-term exposure to PM from these hotspots can have serious impacts on respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological systems, with children being of particular vulnerability due to physiological differences that leave them more susceptible to PM (Kurt et al, 2017; Genc et al, 2012; Moore, 2009). For instance, sulphate particles have been shown to induce asthma and excessive exposure to carbon can be linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death (Bourdrel, 2017; Bell and HEI, 2012).
Relative to air pollution, factories have a significant impact on potable water in low-income neighbourhoods. It is commonplace for factory workers to dispose of waste in and around community water sources (Field, 2018). Polluted water is then used for various daily activities, allowing for the entry of contaminants into human systems, which can cause a plethora of health issues such as diarrhea, infections, and cancer. Low-income communities are much more likely than their affluent counterparts to have poor water quality. A report using data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data found that socioeconomic measures such as ethnicity, race, access to transportation, and language had the greatest link to ineffective enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act (Fedinick et al., 2019). A demonstration of this issue in action is the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In this case, the city decided to switch their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, which was contaminated with lead. This was primarily motivated by cost-cutting tactics to save money in this predominantly low-income, African-American community (Eligon, 2016). A case of institutionally-driven environmental injustice arises, as even after multiple complaints were filed by the Governor’s appointed Environmental Manager, the state health department deemed the water ‘safe’ (Campbell et al., 2016). As a result, many residents faced long-term health impacts such as the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, infertility, and kidney disease (Ruckart et al., 2019). Another example of water contamination in low-income communities is mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows First Nations, which occurred due to waste from a pulp mill upstream. Even after the mill worker’s admission to burying mercury in the community, it took decades of public pressure for the Ontario government to take action (Seymour, 2015). These cases highlight how the impact of industrial factories on potable water in low-income neighbourhoods is a pressing issue that has led to serious health consequences, disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.
It is clear from both of these instances that there are systemic social and political issues that inhibit the growth and health of these low-income neighbourhoods. Structural determinants of health have been considered to have a strong impact on health outcomes in both direct and indirect ways. Institutional classism and racism, unsafe employment conditions, and social isolation are just some factors that contribute to an increased allostatic load - which refers to the “cumulative burden of chronic stress and life events”, making people more susceptible to disease and death (Guidi et al., 2021). Many of these factors create feedback loops that perpetuate and deteriorate community health outcomes (Wilkinson and Marmot, 2003). Increased exposure to environmental health hazards only complicates this and creates even more vulnerable communities. This phenomenon is known as the double burden of disease. Resulting from the epidemiological transition theory, this idea posits that certain communities disproportionately endure both infectious and non-communicable diseases. While infectious diseases can arise from air and water pollution as discussed previously, it is important to see how chronic diseases can manifest in these communities. Many racialized individuals earn a lower wage than their White counterparts, especially when looking through an intersectional lens. In Holzer and Dunlop’s (2013) study, they found that the mean hourly wage of White males with high school-level education was $16.29, compared to $9.64 for Black females with the same education level. These wage disparities force racialized individuals to move into these communities, as the cost of living is much cheaper as a result of the factory’s presence (Ibrahim and Chung, 2003). The poor living conditions of these neighbourhoods cause great amounts of stress that can increase the risk of many non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases (Salleh, 2008). Due to the lacking infrastructure in these neighbourhoods, there is insufficient healthcare services to adequately help these populations. Under such circumstances, these communities remain isolated and entrapped in a cycle of poverty that causes them to remain in these low-income neighbourhoods.
Compounding the magnitude of all of these issues, it is evident why the issue of factories in and around urban areas greatly affects the health of low-income neighbourhoods in developed nations. PM from air pollution can cause respiratory diseases, and water contamination can cause developmental problems, both of which children are most vulnerable to. Structural determinants of health exacerbate the health outcomes and conditions faced by many individuals within low-income neighbourhoods surrounding urban areas. While there have been interventions from a policy level, none have proven to be effective due to the complexity of this issue. A better holistic understanding of the interplay between environmental hazards, racial disparities, and structural determinants of health must be implemented into policy and decision-making in order to create tangible and lasting change.
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