Introduction to Environmental Justice

How It All Started

The concept of environmental justice (EJ) entails that every human being is equally entitled to a clean, safe and healthy environment, regardless of his or her race, ethnicity, class, gender, or any other category of identity and sense of belonging. The rudiments of this idea can be traced all the way back to the 1800s as elements of past struggles for the rights of the working class, women, and people of color, but EJ started to be articulated in earnest only in the 1980s [1]. A landmark moment for EJ happened in the U.S. in 1982, when hundreds of protesters were arrested for opposing the trucking and landfilling of soil contaminated with the highly toxic and illegal chemicals polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in Warren County, which had the largest percentage of African Americans in North Carolina, and was also one of the state’s poorest counties [2]. The event drew national attention and raised suspicions that other communities of color or low socioeconomic status in the U.S. were also exposed to an unfair share of environmental hazards [3]. Those suspicions were soon confirmed by a few groundbreaking studies, which found that the siting of hazardous waste facilities in the American South [4, 5], and the U.S. as a whole [6], was indeed strongly correlated with race and living standard. This issue became known as environmental racism, environmental inequality or environmental injustice [3].

A National Policy Milestone of Questionable Effect

What followed was the birth of a nationwide grassroots movement demanding EJ for marginalized communities around the U.S. that bore the brunt of environmental pollution and degradation, and had insufficient access to green recreational spaces and nature. The EJ movement organized within the existing frameworks of activism for racial and class justice, as well as gender equality, because the predominantly white, middle-to-upper class and male mainstream environmental movement kept away from dealing with discrimination [1, 3, 7]. The rise of the EJ movement coincided with the development of interdisciplinary scholarship on EJ [3, 7]. By the 1990s, the efforts of the activists and the academics alike brought EJ onto the agenda of national politicians and policymakers, which culminated with the issuance of Executive Order 12898 Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations in 1994 [8]. This presidential directive incorporated EJ principles into the mission of all federal agencies, but a quarter century since that milestone its effect appears weak, and state-level action to promote EJ has been very limited at best [7], as reflected in a few widely-reported recent events, including: contamination of public water supply with lead in the cash-strapped, majority-black city of Flint, Michigan [9]; resounding and ultimately unsuccessful protests of Native Americans against the building of the crude-oil Dakota Access Pipeline near the main drinking water source and sacred ground at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota [10]; overexposure of poor and non-white communities to record flooding and ensuing toxic risks from escaped industrial chemicals after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas [11, 12]; and overwhelming devastation of the economically troubled U.S. overseas territory of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria, and the subsequent inadequate relief and recovery responses of the federal and island governments [13].

Connections with Health, and the Spiral of Poverty and Exclusion

By now, EJ scholars have amassed a persuasive amount of evidence that communities of color and economically disadvantaged groups across the U.S. carry more than their share of environmental burdens and enjoy lesser environmental benefits [7]. A new frontier in EJ research is the connection between these disproportionate environmental exposures and health. It is not surprising that poverty tends to be associated with poor health, as the poor are less able to afford food and other basics, medical care and education that promotes healthy behaviors, and tend to live in neighborhoods where violent crime is more prevalent [14]. However, these obvious factors can only explain a part of ill health associated with poverty. Another part is linked to the actual level of inequality in a society; in other words, as social inequalities grow, the health of the less advantaged groups has been observed to deteriorate beyond what is expected from their absolute amount of income and assets [15]. Some of this can be explained by psychosocial stress (the negative physiological effects of merely perceiving and feeling that one is underprivileged and discriminated against) [15], but environmental exposures also play a substantial role in differential health outcomes [14, 16]. Distinguishing this role from contributions of other risk factors (such as those mentioned above) and disentangling the health impacts of different types of environmental exposures is an active area of research [14]. Disproportionate exposures to environmental problems are implicated in increased rates of infant and adult mortality, and a range of maladies, such as lower birth weight, neurodevelopmental disorders, asthma, cardiovascular disease, adverse reproductive outcomes, and cancer [10, 14, 17]. Worsening health reduces children’s school attendance and adults’ ability to work, thus trapping them in a spiral of deprivation and social exclusion [10, 16].

Environmental Justice Benefits Everyone, Not Just the Underprivileged

Research on the effects of affluence and influence distribution within societies on the condition of the environment and public health has uncovered two intriguing revelations: One is that more social inequality leads to worse health broadly across the social spectrum, and not just for the deprived and socially excluded [15]. The other is that greater differences in purchasing power and political power among social groups lead to increased total pollution and environmental degradation overall [10, 17]. Among the wealthiest countries in the world, the U.S. has the highest level of economic inequality and the lowest life expectancy, in spite of spending more on health care per person than any other country [18]. Some of the discrepancy between health investments and health outcomes in the U.S. can be attributed to the issues of EJ. A number of studies have found that states and places in the U.S. with greater socioeconomic inequality and residential segregation by race and ethnicity have worse environmental quality in general and increased health risks from pollution and changing climate for everyone [17]. A few studies have also shown that directing environmental regulations to improve conditions for the groups that are most exposed to environmental hazards could improve the health and wellbeing of the general population [17]. Conversely, environmental policies that do not take special care of their effects on the disadvantaged can perpetuate and worsen social injustice [19]. Lately, the power of aligning environmental and social causes has started to be realized by civic movements, and a new school of thinking known as just sustainabilities has emerged, postulating that environmental sustainability can never be accomplished if social justice is neglected [7, 20].

Environmental Justice Efforts at the University of Pennsylvania

Prompted by the important new knowledge and ideas on EJ, and conviction that disciplinary compartmentalization of EJ research hampers both academic and practical progress in this field, a group of faculty and staff from several Penn schools have started an initiative to seek the most promising strategies for significant national EJ advancement. As the first step in this effort, in October 2019 we organized a symposium that provided a platform for distinguished academic researchers, prominent EJ champions, and community representatives to share and discuss current relevant knowledge from a variety of disciplines (environmental and health science, engineering, economics, law, political and social science), and to explore avenues for knowledge integration and community engagement that could best support much-needed national progress towards EJ.


1.  Taylor, D.E., American Environmentalism: The Role of Race, Class and Gender in Shaping Activism 1820-1995. Race, Gender & Class, 1997. 5(1): p. 16-62.

2.  The Exchange Project, Afton, NC (Warren County), in Real People – Real Stories. 2006, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, North Carolina. p. 1-18.

3.  Mohai, P., D. Pellow, and J.T. Roberts, Environmental Justice. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2009. 34(1): p. 405-430.

4.  U. S. General Accounting Office, Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. 1983, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C.

5.  Bullard, R.D., Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community. Sociological Inquiry, 1983. 53(2‐3): p. 273-288.

6.  Chavis, B.F. and C. Lee, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. 1987, Commission for Racial Justice, United Church of Christ.

7.  Agyeman, J., et al., Trends and Directions in Environmental Justice: From Inequity to Everyday Life, Community, and Just Sustainabilities. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2016. 41(1): p. 321-340.

8.  XLII President of the U.S. William J. Clinton, Executive Order 12898 of February 11, 1994 – Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. Federal Register, 1994. 59(32): p. 7629.

9.  Peplow, M., Poisonous politics in the Rust Belt. Nature, 2018. 559: p. 180.

10.  Boyce, J.K., The Environmental Cost of Inequality. Scientific American, 2018. 319(5): p. 72-77.

11.  Chakraborty, J., T.W. Collins, and S.E. Grineski, Exploring the Environmental Justice Implications of Hurricane Harvey Flooding in Greater Houston, Texas. American Journal of Public Health, 2018. 109(2): p. 244-250.

12.  Madrigano, J., et al., Fugitive Chemicals and Environmental Justice: A Model for Environmental Monitoring Following Climate-Related Disasters. Environmental Justice, 2018. 11(3): p. 95-100.

13.  García-López, G.A., The Multiple Layers of Environmental Injustice in Contexts of (Un)natural Disasters: The Case of Puerto Rico Post-Hurricane Maria. Environmental Justice, 2018. 11(3): p. 101-108.

14.  Solomon, G.M., et al., Cumulative Environmental Impacts: Science and Policy to Protect Communities. Annual Review of Public Health, 2016. 37(1): p. 83-96.

15.  Sapolsky, R.M., The Health-Wealth Gap. Scientific American, 2018. 319(5): p. 62-67.

16.  Landrigan, P.J., et al., The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. The Lancet, 2018. 391(10119): p. 462-512.

17.  Cushing, L., et al., The Haves, the Have-Nots, and the Health of Everyone: The Relationship Between Social Inequality and Environmental Quality. Annual Review of Public Health, 2015. 36(1): p. 193-209.

18.  Stiglitz, J.E., A Rigged Economy. Scientific American, 2018. 319(5): p. 56-61.

19.  Laurent, É., Issues in environmental justice within the European Union. Ecological Economics, 2011. 70(11): p. 1846-1853.

20.  Wachsmuth, D., D.A. Cohen, and H. Angelo, Expand the frontiers of urban sustainability. Nature, 2016. 536(7617): p. 391-393.

Skip to toolbar