Environmental justice and population health

A number of lectures have focused on the role of socioeconomic status on population health. Although our course has not focused on the “chemical environment” (e.g., air and water pollution), the concentration of health challenges in neighborhoods has been a recurring theme. PHS 795 Student Laurel Myers calls our attention to an interesting resource to help explore the relationship of health determinants to geographic location. She writes:

As we reflect on the effects of neighborhoods on health and happiness, I would like to highlight an important component of those outcomes: environmental justice. I am sure that many of us are already familiar with this concept, even if we don’t have a name for it. 

 The term “environmental justice” arose in the 1980’s and can be defined as “the unequal distribution of social and environmental costs between different human groups, classes, ethnicities but also in relation to gender and age.” Examples include increased pollution or decreased access to safe exercise spaces. Impoverished communities do not often have time or resources to fight the battles necessary to combat new factories that spew chemicals or to advocate for more sidewalks or green space. 

The EJ Atlas not only details the issue, but provides and interactive map where you can see violations of environmental justice worldwide: https://ejatlas.org/about

For those interested in exploring this issue more, Majora Carter explains environmental justice well in her talk “Greening the Ghetto” (https://www.ted.com/talks/majora_carter_s_tale_of_urban_renewal). I challenge you to consider what environmental injustices might exist here in Madison, or in your home communities.


4 thoughts on “Environmental justice and population health

  1. Ties between the environment and health are so intertwined, and I’m happy you brought this to the blog. It’ll be excited to have an entire class focusing on this intersection next semester.

    Many a time we see environmental justice issues compounding with other issues like racial disparities and lack of access to food options, physical activity, etc. As we heard about earlier in the semester, your zip code determines a lot about your health. Environment is all about that place and space.

    There are a few Superfund sites in Dane County, which may be surprising to some of us. The one I know of located in Madison is…take a wild guess…on the south side. The south and north sides of town are the most neglected in many ways, including in terms of environmental justice and health disparities. I believe the south sides has especially been of note as more people live there? The Superfund site is south of the beltline, just south of the Walmart across from South Towne Mall (yes there is a South Towne!).

    The site is a sewerage system and contaminated with PCBs, a potential health concern indeed. Do you think the people who are moving into neighborhoods near this site have the time to learn about things like PCBs before moving there? Do you research “superfund sites” when you’re searching for an apartment? Probably not. The apartments near this site may be within budget or a good location to get to work…these are the things people are probably most concerned about when searching for housing.

    What are some things the health department or neighborhood association could do about the presence of a Superfund site in their district?


  2. Around the UW-Madison campus there are also issues of environmental justice. Over time, many new apartment buildings have been constructed with high-end appliances, fixtures, etc., and have been marketed towards students or new graduates as nicer places to live near school/work. Obviously they are quite a bit nicer to look at than older buildings and likely attract individuals with higher socioeconomic status who are more likely to boost the status of campus neighborhoods. However, I do fear that students (and workers) who need to live near campus but are of lower socioeconomic status (first-generation students, racial and ethnic minorities, etc) will suffer if new apartments continue to cater to individuals with higher individual/family income.
    Many apartments and houses around the campus that are more affordable are not necessarily environmentally safe places. For example, although a non-smoking policy may be posted in many apartments, buildings that are most affordable do not necessarily implement this policy. As we know, secondhand smoke has many health implications, which may be exacerbated if an individual already has a conditions such as asthma. Additionally, cheaper housing around campus often has infestations of cockroaches, lack of (or unclean) air conditioning, lack of or inadequate exercise/park facilities, drafty windows, mold, and generally slow maintenance services, all of which pose potential health threats. Students and workers of lower socioeconomic status who must live near campus are forced into these apartments, while others able to afford it often live in the high-end apartments.
    Unless either affordable buildings find a way to improve their environmental conditions or newer buildings are made to be more affordable, the current trend seems to be that there will be a polarizing effect in housing. That is, individuals will either need to pay a large amount of money for a high-end apartment, or live in a cheaper but unhealthy apartment. For the sake of UW-Madison’s current population and considering how is has been trying to provide scholarships, transfer programs, and the like to bring in more first-generation and low socioeconomic status students, this issue will hopefully be addressed.


  3. Environmental injustice certainly happens everywhere, and this raises some great conversations about who is most affected by unfavorable environmental legislation versus who has the governing power to resist certain environmental conditions. The housing situation in Madison, WI is a fantastic example, and continues to be a growing issue. For example, the city recently approved a new luxury apartment complex to be built at Fish Hatchery Rd and S Park St. This area of Madison is home to many residents who are already being pushed out of the main downtown area due to rising rent costs, so by building new, expensive housing, where are these people to go? Furthermore, the driving forces behind apartment-building approval are typically those with power, wealth, and authority to dictate where to build. In a disadvantaged area, it is difficult to believe that the residents have the ability to resist the growing luxury housing industry.

    Building this apartment complex has the potential to interfere with the social capital that current residents have established. As we learned in class, there is a level of social connectedness that contributes to one’s overall sense of well-being. Aside from the physical environment that a large building obstructs, there are social consequences to consider. Another environmental injustice to explore is the concentration of healthy food options in certain areas of Madison. Some areas become saturated with cheap, fast food options instead of grocery stores and nutritional options. Madison continues to be an interesting city to analyze as it keeps expanding, and it will be interesting to see how populations respond to the changing physical environment.


  4. While I don’t have extensive knowledge on the environmental justice issues facing the Madison community, I just wanted to add some information on a community-based organization that has successfully mobilized for environmental justice in its own community.


    The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) arose in the 1980s when the Dudley Street community organized to stop illegal dumping and arson occurring in abandoned lots scattered throughout the Boston neighbhood. Since its successful campaign to curb illegal dumping and burning and their effects, DSNI has become a profound agent of change within the Dudley Street community that continues to advocate for justice–in many senses of the word–for its community and the people within it. Despite the fact that no marginalized community should ever have to advocate on its own behalf against government initiatives that might disproportionately impact it, DSNI continues to provide inspirational examples of the extent to which community advocacy can effect significant change, especially in the realm of environmental justice.


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