Key Takeaways:

  • Environmental injustice touches on many facets of human livelihoods, from air and water quality affecting health, to impacts of sea level rise, all the way to lacking food access.
  • Long-term solutions are necessary to address systemic issues with histories of negatively affecting marginalized communities.
  • Individuals can take part in combating the environmental injustices in their own neighborhoods or around the world by getting involved, educating themselves, and by changing personal habits.

Who is the most impacted by environmental injustices?

The environment and society are incredibly intertwined, which is why it’s important to include the voices and needs of all people when trying to create equitable change. In today’s world, we are experiencing the active exclusion of valuable input leading to disastrous consequences. Environmental justice is a movement that addresses this exclusion and works to alleviate the burden on groups of people who are not responsible for harming the climate, yet are paying the highest price. Protecting those in poverty or in minority communities who are facing environmental harm is necessary when systemic racism, regulations, and policies exist to keep people in the wake of negative environmental impacts, like housing near pollution, sea-level rise, and poor food access.

Living near industrial agriculture

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Agriculture is a big world player, using 40% of all land on Earth. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that some farms are located close to residential areas, but sometimes these farms aren’t so neighborly. Since the green revolution, we’ve found that industrial agriculture has had disastrous effects on human and environmental health. It’s important to realize though, that these effects are often felt by communities living on the margin. 

This issue isn’t new though, industrial livestock farms have caused suffering for decades. North Carolina, a state with more pigs than residents, is lacking proper infrastructure to deal with the millions of pounds of waste they produce each year. For at least 30 years, citizens of the state have been fighting to keep pigs and waste lagoons a ‘safe’ distance from their homes, schools, hospitals, and places of worship. Schools of predominantly Black and Hispanic students were exposed to odors from swine factories, unlike schools with majority White students. 

In the San Joaquin Valley in California, 154 dairy farms raise millions of cows. While only 9% of the state’s residents live there, the Valley accounts for 15% of the state’s pollutants. The disproportionate effects don’t end there; the poverty rate of the counties in San Joaquin Valley is around 20%, 49% of residents are Latinx, and more than 30% of people speak a language other than English at home.


Their health has already been impacted with high rates of asthma, miscarriages, and other issues. Another problem caused by farms with livestock is that they are breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases. In 2010, thousands of people in the Netherlands got Q fever from dairy goats.

Crop-growing farms also generate water, ground, and air pollution. Manure is often used as fertilizer, infiltrating soil and air with noxious fumes. Chemical fertilizers can bleed into nearby water systems, killing organisms in the process and harming the health of people who drink from them. 

Health effects

Residents living within a couple of miles of industrial farms may be afflicted with headaches, nosebleeds, breathing problems, and fatigue. More serious yet, extreme problems, like heart conditions, brain defects, cancer, miscarriages, infertility, and death, can affect people living directly next to farms. Health problems associated with farming have been recognized for decades. You might be surprised to learn that the use of pesticides and fertilizers stems from World War II, when there was an oversupply of chemicals that had been formerly used in munitions. Although people were initially unaware of how these chemicals impacted health, individuals like Cesar Chavez helped to uncover their impacts. Chavez was an American labor leader and civil rights activist who was one of the first figures to bring attention to the connection between fertilizer and pesticide use and human and environmental health back in the 1950s. He brought attention to the disproportionate effect that industrial agriculture had and still has on farmworkers and marginalized communities living near these areas of production. 

How it’s been addressed

Agriculture-caused pollution has been addressed with legislation like the Clean Water Act of  1972. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAPOs) are regulated to have management plans for their practices, with mandatory reporting on the quality of nearby waterways. Unfortunately, public access to this information is limited. County zoning also helps in managing odor and nuisances, yet people still face issues caused by industrial farming. You may be wondering, can’t people just sue or file civil rights complaints against the locations that are harming them? The odds are stacked against minority groups lacking political clout. Big agriculture influences cities and states, leveraging their lobbying abilities and money. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which handles civil rights complaints, has a history of failing to follow the proper process for handling the complaints.

Take action

  • Eat less meat, dairy, and eggs. Eating fewer animal products will help in reducing the number of farms producing meat, dairy, and eggs. Animal agriculture uses 70% of agricultural land and produces 65% of the world’s nitrous oxide emissions. The animals raised for slaughter or for their byproducts create waste that bleeds into our waterways, they spread disease, and they directly harm those living in close proximity. Reducing our animal consumption is one way to limit the number of farms creating problems for people and the environment.
  • Look for Organic Labels: When a product is labeled organic, that means it was produced without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or other artificial agents. Check out our Food Label Guide for more information. 

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Living near toxic, hazardous, or polluting sites

Toxic chemicals helped galvanize the environmental justice movement. In 1982, Warren County, North Carolina, was home to many Black citizens when thousands of trucks came to dump hazardous materials into a landfill in their county. The community organized marches and protests to try and stop the dumping, but their efforts ultimately failed and the toxic waste was deposited into the landfill. The events, however, drew national attention, and patterns of environmental racism were noted by populations facing similar issues. 

Housing near industrial sites, like mining and toxic waste facilities, draw people in with attractive prices and the purposeful exclusion of notice of the nearby polluting sites. Sites working with ignitable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic materials create risk to the health and safety of people around them. These sites spew chemicals like mercury, lead, and arsenic into the air, which can, unfortunately, lead to asthma, birth defects, eye and skin irritation, behavioral abnormalities, and cancer.

In the United States, 77,000 people in federally subsidized housing are subject to toxic pollutants from nearby industrial sites. There is a distinct correlation between impoverished people and exposure to toxic fumes. In 2017, it was found that 70% of waste sites were located 1 mile away from federally assisted housing. Race also plays a part in proximity to toxic sites, with Black Americans being 75% more likely to live near the sites than other races. 

Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of land in Louisiana including cities like St. Gabriel, encapsulates the issue of polluting sites causing serious issues for nearby residents. Two-thirds of St. Gabriel is Black, and they have dealt with environmental racism for decades with the development of multiple prisons and a boot camp in their city. Now, they are afflicted by cancer-risk rates of 50 times the national average due to the emissions of over 100 petrochemical facilities.

Experts state that we need to pay attention to how minority neighborhoods are consistently more exposed to these environmental hazards. Dr. Chingwen Chen is a Program Head and Associate Professor in landscape architecture and urban design at Arizona State University (ASU), and utilizes Climate Justice Design to integrate environmental justice theory into her architectural work. She states that “if we want to increase environmental justice, we have to rethink how we can distribute resources equitably. We need to prioritize neighborhoods that have been historically underinvested in.” This means increasing access to “open space, clean air, clean water, and green spaces.” 

Toxic waste sites have been addressed by the US government through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund. This helps to protect people’s health by identifying dangerous areas and cleaning up sites and other response actions. In many cases, people are not notified that they are living in proximity to Superfund sites. National or local bodies are the ones who address toxic materials, whether by creating policies or cleaning up sites. There are currently no global conventions or policies that focus on toxic waste, but prominent scientists are looking to create a body to address toxic chemicals and waste.

Take action

  • Identify and report harmful sites. Citizens have a role in identifying Superfund and other harmful sites around the United States. If you’re aware of a site that may be hazardous, you can file a report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) here. There are protection statutes for whistleblowers in place. The EPA provides an interactive map on pollutants across the country.
  • Look for community-building opportunities. There are many spaces for collaboration to work on sharing ideas and information. You and your community can come together to create petitions and identify environmental hazards in your area. You can join a workshop or class about environmental data in your locale. Workshops like First Look at Technical Documents highlight concentrations of hazardous compounds in the community’s air and teach citizens about environmental data and how it can be deciphered.

Polluted cities 

Air pollution is the suspension of liquid, solid, and gas particles in the atmosphere. The particles are created by burning fossil fuels, wildfires, transportation, mining, and factory and industrial sites, resulting in common pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and particulate matter.

7 million premature deaths every year are attributed to air pollution. Typically, those faced with the most air pollution are low-income. Whether in the United States, where 130 million people live in areas that don’t meet national ambient air quality standards, or globally, where low-income cities and countries are breathing unclean air, air pollution can be detrimental to human health.

Short and long-term exposure to air pollution can cause cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, and cancer. Those with preexisting conditions are more severely impacted. More than 90% of these health problems are affecting low and middle-income countries in Asia and Africa. These health issues lead to unemployment, affecting productivity and the economy.

Marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by pollution particles. In America, black people are more likely to die prematurely because of pollution than white people. Globally, developed countries put pressure on developing countries to create products and therefore create pollution. Bangladesh, the most polluted country, produces over a billion clay bricks annually in factories and a large number of small businesses. The brick-producing kilns burn wood, coal, rubber, and plastic to operate. The formation of conventions, including the UNECE Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution from 1979, helped to reduce air pollution in some countries, but it is still an issue plaguing cities around the world.

Take action

  • Education. Education is essential in the areas that are unaware of how air pollution is created and how it affects the human body. This will help when it comes to decision-making, likely encouraging better choices to be made. Bangladesh, for example, may reconsider using rubber and plastic as fuel for kilns. Educating others begins with educating ourselves, so start by learning about the impacts of air pollution.
  • Switch to renewable energy. Switching to clean, renewable energy can help in reducing air pollution. Organizations, like Inspire, help in transitioning individuals from the regular power grid to renewable energy sources. You may want to invest in a hybrid or electric vehicle, which produces fewer emissions than conventional gasoline or diesel cars. Look into tax credits and other incentives to help save money when making the switch.

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Coastal cities: sea level rise and natural disasters
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Every continent will be affected by problems with our oceans, like rising sea levels due to climate change, and locals will face difficult issues related to safe housing, devastated croplands, biodiversity loss, and more. Some will be forced to abandon their homes, causing people to lose everything. Experts state that encroaching seas will also devastate peoples’ culture, identity, livelihoods and wellbeing. Dr. Michael K. Dorsey is an environmental scientist, advocate, scholar, and entrepreneur. Additionally, he created Island First, a nonprofit that advocated for marginalized island and coastal communities affected by sea level rise. 

“Those that are least responsible, contribute the least to climate change, to pollution. Those people happen to be pretty much born everywhere you look, no matter what country, no matter where you are on earth, those people happen to be in the poorest of the poor, those on the margins. Yet we see the deleterious downside, that the negative effects of climate change and energy justice, it falls disproportionately on those on the margins. So in the case of climate and energy, folks that are at least responsible for the climate problem, they shoulder and are most affected. Their lives are cut short and end disappointingly more than those that are driving the problem.” 

Dr. Michael K. Dorsey

But havoc to coastal areas is not unfamiliar to the people living there. People have already been displaced by water, like the people on the Solomon Islands who have already lost five islands to the Pacific Ocean. Tropical storms, one of the most detrimental weather events, have been ravaging coastal communities and contributing to their economic loss. Cyclone Maria’s effects on the country of Dominica totaled losses of 200% of its GDP. This will continue to worsen with recent years of above-average hurricane activity.

Countries like India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar will be majorly affected by sea-level rise and typhoons, and how are they expected to stay afloat? Meeting with stakeholders, creating plans, delegating tasks, altering existing and new infrastructure, or moving citizens require both time and money. Can a developing nation like Bangladesh, where 20% of people are living under the poverty line, afford to allocate funds towards preparing for sea-level rise? Dorsey explains that these poor and marginalized communities “are less able to pour money into combating sea level rise.”  

Take action

  • Support organizations. Check out organizations like Island First, which focuses on protecting small islands from the effects of climate change. There are a number of groups you can learn from and contribute to that focus on education and actionable change!
  • Reduce your carbon footprint. Take actions to reduce your carbon footprint, which shows your contribution to emissions and climate change. Learn more about climate change and how it drives sea level rise.

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Hunger and food insecurity

Food deserts, or areas where it is difficult to access nutritious food, are present all over the United States. The USDA defines food deserts as “a low-income tract where a substantial number or substantial share of residents does not have easy access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” On the map below, green represents areas that are 10 miles from a grocery store in a rural area, or one mile from the nearest grocery store in an urban area.

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Food deserts are an environmental injustice issue because healthy and nutritious food is kept inaccessible to certain communities based on race and income. This injustice keeps marginalized communities from being able to lead safe and healthy lives based on where they live. In areas where access to nutritious and fresh food is restricted, people experience higher levels of malnutrition, infertility, anxiety, diet-related illness, depression, and lower performance in school and work. Experts around the country agree that in order to understand this issue, people need to understand that this is a result of generations of racism, colonization, and imperialization.

Dr. Joni Adamson is a President’s Professor of Environmental Humanities in the Department of English and the Director of the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU. When it comes to environmental injustice and understanding food deserts, Adamson states that “The first question you ask is, maybe not why is there no food in this neighborhood, but why are these people living here in the first place? In the case of many indigenous people,  it may be because they have been moved to a reservation. Often big chain grocery stores will not locate on reservations because they believe that it’s not going to be profitable.” Adamson adds that it’s important to understand that we currently have enough food to feed many food-insecure communities around the world. She says that “most economists agree that in fact, we have enough food to feed the world. The problem is often politics and distribution. This is creating food deserts, whether it’s a whole country where food is not being distributed equitably, or a neighborhood that doesn’t have access to nutritious, fresh food, because they belong to a community that has been historically marginalized.”

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Take action

  • Support organizations. Grassroots organizations like Slow Foods International fights fast food, food insecurity, and protects culturally appropriate food. Many groups help support Indigenous food systems, which can enrich community food supplies.
  • Understand where your food comes from. Learn about the certified and non-certified food labels on the goods you’re purchasing. Attend your local farmer market and support local growers and producers.
  • Locate food deserts. You might be surprised by the proximity food insecurity is to where you live. The World Food Programme provides an interactive map showing hunger in different cities globally.

General ways to get involved

Understand the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

In order to combat environmental injustices around the world, the United Nations created the SDGs, a blueprint of carefully crafted solutions to combat inequalities. Sustainable development requires a justice lens to ensure quality life for all. The goals, including No Poverty and Clean Water, will not be achieved if only some groups of people have reached set targets. Learn more about the importance of the 17 SDGs. Become an expert on your favorite goal, and research what advancements have been made to help meet the goal by the target end date of 2030! If you’re interested in voicing these goals to your local community, there are United Nations Associations chapters that allow you to connect with others who are also looking to amplify sustainability.

Look for opportunities to fight the good fight

You may be surprised by the number of environmental injustices occurring in communities around you. There are opportunities to get involved in protests against expansions or additions of industrial agriculture, waste sites, and other polluters. Keep up with local news, or sit in on city council meetings. They will converse about development plans, and typically provide spaces in which people can voice their concerns. You can start a petition against a development, which shows that a significant number of people are backing your viewpoint. Circulating petitions can also garner attention for the issue and expose more people to current issues.

Being aware of injustices is the first step in helping to combat them. Although individuals can make great strides and positive impacts, collaborating with others to fight the systemic issues that have plagued people for centuries is key in righting the wrongs of yesterday and today.