It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon; perfect weather for throwing steaks on the grill and lounging by the pool.  Comfortable surroundings often become fortresses that shield us from the harsh realities of life.   Hazardous waste landfills are part of the landscape for many Americans.  Yet unless the topic is part of a class discussion, few think about this disturbing fact – certainly not while lounging near our pools.

The 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, implantation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and polices”  (Wright and Boorse 584). 

The EPA explains that fair treatment means that no group of people, including racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups, should have a disproportionate share in the negative consequences resulting from industrial, municipal and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state and tribal programs and policies. 

In spite of the claims of fair treatment, the harsh reality is that low income and minority groups are the ones most impacted by harsh environmental circumstances.  Studies show that particular geographical neighborhoods can expose residents to environmental pollution and hazardous substances (Chircop 136).  Examples in the physical environment include poor urban planning and inadequate housing that can lead to a variety of health concerns including depression, aggressive behavior, asthma, obesity, heart disease and stressors to the immune system. 

Wait, the list does not stop there.  Urban neighborhoods of low-cost or public housing are linked to negative health outcomes, which include: higher rates of asthma, allergies and greater exposure to toxic materials such as lead and pesticides. Studies also show that trends in an increased burden of chronic diseases are reflected by geographical distributions of economic and social disparities and a rural-urban divide (Chircop 137). 

It seems that the poor/minority groups cannot escape negative environmental consequences – whether they are in the inner city or in more rural areas.  Here are three examples of the harsh reality:

*The largest commercial hazardous-waste landfill in the United States is in Emelle, Alaba.  African Americans make up 90% of Emelle’s population.  The landfill receives waste from superfund sites and every state in the continental U.S.   (Wright and Boorse 584). 

*A Choctaw reservation in Philadelphia, Mississippi, was targeted to become home of a 466 acre hazardous waste landfill.  The reservation population is entirely Native American.

*A recent study found that 870,000 U.S. federally subsidized housing units are within a mile of factories that have reported toxic emissions to the EPA.  Most of the apartment tenants are minorities.

All studies point to one thing, waste sites and other facilities are more likely to end up in towns or neighborhoods where the majority is non-Caucasian.  Undoubtedly there are laws that are meant to protect the groups that “bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences”.  However, the sad statistics show one thing:  the laws are not being enforced.   As a result, poor and minority groups are left unprotected and they continue to be exposed to conditions that pose serious health risks.


Works Cited:

Chicrop, A.  (2008).  An ecofeminist conceptual framework to explore gendered environmental health inequities in urban setting and to inform health public policy.  Nursing Inquiry, 15(2), 135-147.


Wright, Richard, T., and Dorothy F. Boorse.  Environmental Science: Towards a sustainable future.  11 ed.  San Francisco:  Pearson Education, Inc., 2011.