Environmental Injustice

Environmental justice is the guarantee that all people, regardless of race or income, deserve clean air, water, and land. That's fair, right? Well, some people are not guaranteed this and that largely depends on where they live, their income, or their race. This is considered environmental injustice. If that sounds unfair to you, we'll explore why this is occurring and how learning about it is one step to righting wrongs.

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Table of contents

    Environmental Injustice Definition

    Environmental injustice is the disproportionate effect of pollution and contamination on minority and low-income communities. Numerous studies have linked racist housing discrimination policies, poor zoning, and failures of local governance to the burden placed on these communities.

    Areas with more industrial sites usually have higher concentrations of air, water, and soil pollution. Higher concentrations of pollutants can affect the quality of life, health, and well-being of residents that live in or close to these areas.

    Environmental injustice can occur at local and regional scales in the US, but also throughout the world.

    At local and regional levels, industry may concentrate near historically low-income and minority communities. While polluting industries seek cheap lands in both urban and rural areas, it's still up to local governments to control their locations and emissions.

    On a global scale, countries such as China and India have high poverty rates coupled with a large amount of industrial pollution. This is due to the high global demand for cheap manufacturing and labor. In turn, lower-income countries are largely burdened with the health and environmental costs of pollution.

    Environmental Injustice and Racism

    Environmental injustice and racism are linked by the historical placement of industrial sites in minority communities. This is due to decades (1890s-1968) of racial discrimination that kept property values low in minority neighbourhoods, while white neighbourhoods were able to access loans and insurance. Industrial sites and municipalities were then able to justify placing industrial and waste sites in areas with lower property values. In many cases, these were low-income and minority communities.

    Black communities are exposed to 1.5-2.5 times more concentrations of toxic industrial pollutants in the US, regardless of income.1 While industrial pollutants were emitted from industrial sites located in or around these communities, toxic waste sites were also being placed in Black and Hispanic communities at higher rates.2 This is due to limited political and financial power to combat business and municipality interests.

    One of the first cases to challenge the location of waste facilities under civil rights laws was in Houston, Texas. This is because, in the 1970s, 80% of landfills and incinerators were placed in Black communities even though only 25% of Houston's residents were Black.3 Community members challenged the Texas Department of Health's permit to build a solid waste landfill in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in 1979.4 It failed and the site was built anyway.

    Environmental Injustice 2010 Median Family Income and Industrial Site Locations Environmental Injustice and Racism StudySmarterFig. 1 - 2010 Median Family Income and Industrial Site Locations in Houston, Texas. Industrial zones are placed within East Houston neighborhoods which tend to be low-income and minority-dominated

    Redlining and Environmental Injustice

    Lower property values in historically minority and low-income neighbourhoods were due especially to redlining and blockbusting. Redlining was a widespread practice by financial institutions to withhold loans and insurance to residents in "high-risk" urban neighbourhoods from the late 1800s until 1968 when it was outlawed. These neighbourhoods included all urban Black communities, with lower "grades" for mixed-race and low-income urban neighbourhoods.

    Blockbusting contributed to this because real estate agents used practices such as racial steering and peddling to induce panic selling of predominantly white-owned homes. This resulted in high property turnover rates from which real estate companies could profit. It also contributed to white flight, the movement of white urban residents to surrounding suburban areas as Black and minority residents left rural areas and moved into cities.

    There are also links between historically redlined neighbourhoods and poor health. Residents are exposed to disproportionate amounts of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter depending on previous redlining "grades." Lower-graded neighbourhoods experience higher concentrations of these pollutants which can cause a range of respiratory issues, including infections and asthma.5

    Environmental Injustice HOLC Redlining Grade in Houston Redlining and Environmental Injustice StudySmarterFig. 2 - HOLC Redlining Grade Map in Houston, Texas; Industrial zones are placed within Eastern neighborhoods which were historically redlined

    Forms of Environmental Injustice

    There are several forms of environmental injustice in the US, ranging from poor enforcement or disregard of environmental policies for minority groups to direct zoning and placement of pollution sites in low-income and minority neighbourhoods.

    Discriminatory Environmental Policies

    Enforcement of environmental policies largely depends on local political power. Detections, penalties for noncompliance, and enforcement have occurred less and more slowly in minority and low-income neighbourhoods. Penalties and enforcement were higher and quicker in more affluent and white neighbourhoods. It does seem that the economic situation of the community has an effect on the level of penalties and compliance!6

    Discriminatory Zoning and Placements

    Policymakers currently seek areas with lower population density to place facilities. This is because areas with greater political influence (and usually more people) can expose, fight, and demand action on environmental injustices. Neighbourhoods with fewer business locations and lower property values tend to be easier targets for placing industrial sites. If there is little objection, or only a small portion of the population is affected, municipalities and businesses are likely to use these reasons for targeting these locations.

    Neighbourhoods already zoned for industrial sites and waste dumping are likely to see more permit requests, notably historically urban industrial zones.

    However, rural areas with low-income populations that need jobs and infrastructure have been more recent targets.6

    North Carolina is home to one of the most infamous cases of disproportionate impacts on minority and low-income communities in rural areas. Intensive hog production began to concentrate in the coastal regions of North Carolina, with a high potential for contaminating well water.7 High disease rates and low access to medical care for minority and low-income communities in the area is already a major case of environmental injustice.

    Environmental Injustice Examples

    There are examples of environmental injustice all over the world. Two cases stand out that represent different forms of environmental discrimination.

    Flint Water Crisis

    The Flint Water Crisis is an ongoing public health disaster in Flint, Michigan. In the midst of a budget crisis, the Flint government changed its water supply source from the Detroit River to the Flint River in 2014. Without proper corrosive testing, lead seeped into the water from older pipes, exposing over 100,000 residents to lead poisoning.

    Thousands of children were exposed to water with high levels of lead. Exposure to lead as a child can impair development and cause learning disabilities.

    Based on the National Health and Nutrition Survey from 2003 to 2012, nationwide, Black children (7.8%) had higher blood lead levels than white children (3.24%).8 Most residents affected were low-income and Black.

    The Flint Water Advisory Task Force described the crisis as a case of environmental injustice due to environmental policy discrimination. When the water source was switched, local residents, doctors, and scientists raised concerns about the water quality and blood lead levels in children. Instead of addressing their concerns, local state agencies claimed water sources were safe, dismissing claims made by communities.8

    Cancer Villages in China

    Rural areas in China have reported higher rates of liver, stomach, esophagus, and cervical cancers than their urban counterparts.9 The phenomenon, termed cancer clusters or "cancer villages," includes higher cancer death rates in certain rural villages than the national average.9

    Cancer clusters across the country are concentrated in poorer areas within provinces, primarily along major rivers where industrial parks are also located. Water contamination from industrial pollution is likely the cause of many cancer cases; however, suppression of information and studies by the Chinese government is preventing further investigations.

    Environmental Injustice Dadu River Environmental Injustice Examples StudySmarterFig. 3 - Dadu River, a tributary of the Yangtze River, China; Villages along the Yangtze River have reported higher rates of cancer deaths

    Industrial and economic growth has been part of China's long-term policy for decades. While the Chinese government has passed a series of environmental policies to "clean up" heavily polluted areas, cities have been the main targets, where more people and wealth are concentrated. This leaves low-income, rural, industrial workers, and farmers to pay the price of economic growth and environmental degradation.

    Environmental Injustice Solutions

    Environmental injustices, although primarily affecting minority and low-income groups, arise from environmental deterioration, which affects everyone. Environmental quality is only as high as the quality of governance.

    Governance is the collection of actions and processes that establish accountability, community participation, equity, and transparency.

    Therefore, experts say that solutions to environmental injustices must begin with elevating the inclusivity of governance. Public health surveillance, stronger environmental protections, and community-based decision-making are all possible solutions that can prevent crises and provide environmental justice for all.

    Environmental Injustice - Key takeaways

    • Environmental injustice is the disproportionate effect of pollution and contamination on minority and low-income communities.
    • Environmental injustice occurs in areas with increased industrial zoning, which experience higher concentrations of air, water, and soil pollution.
    • Historical racial discrimination and segregation have resulted in greater industrial zoning in minority and low-income communities.
    • Forms of environmental injustice include poor enforcement of environmental policies and placement of pollution sites in low-income and minority neighborhoods.
    • A solution to environmental injustice includes improved governance through public health surveillance, stronger environmental protections, and community-based decision-making.


    1. Downey, L. and Hawkins, B. Race, Income, and Environmental Inequality in the United States. Sociol Perspect. 2008. 51(8). DOI: 10.1525/sop.2008.51.4.759.
    2. Mitchell, C. M. Environmental Racism: Race as a Primary Factor in the Selection of Hazardous Waste Sites. National Black Law Journal. 1993. 12(3). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/60r03697
    3. Kanu, H. "Toxic racism confronted by DOJ's environmental discrimination probes." Reuters. July 28, 2022.
    4. Outka, U. Environmental Injustice and the Problem of the Law. Maine Law Review. 2005. 57(1). Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol57/iss1/9
    5. Lane, H. M., Morello-Frosch, R., Marshall, J. D., and Apte, J. Historical Redlining Is Associated with Present-Day Air Pollution Disparities in U.S. Cities. Environmental Science & Technology Letters. 2022. 9(4), 345-350. DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.1c01012.
    6. Diaz, R. S. Getting to the Root of Environmental Injustice: Evaluating Claims, Causes, and Solutions. Georgetown Environmental Law Review. 2016. 29.
    7. Wing, S., Dana, C., and Grant, G. Environmental Injustice in North Carolina's Hog Industry. Environmental Health Prospectives. 2000. 108(3), 225-231. DOI: 10.1289/ehp.00108225.
    8. Campbell, C., Greenberg, R., Mankikar, D., and Ross, R. D. A Case Study of Environmental Injustice: The Failure in Flint. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2016. 13(951). DOI: 10.3390/ijerph13100951.
    9. Liu, L. Made in China: Cancer Villages. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. 2010. 52(2), 8-21. DOI: 10.1080/00139151003618118.
    10. Fig. 1, 2010 Median Family Income and Industrial Site Locations in Houston, Texas (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010_Median_Family_Income_and_Industrial_Site_Locations_in_Houston,_Texas.png), by Joelean Hall (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Joelean_Hall&action=edit&redlink=1), licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    11. Fig. 2, HOLC Neighborhood Redlining Grade in Houston, Texas (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Home_Owners%27_Loan_Corp._(HOLC)_Neighborhood_Redlining_Grade_in_Houston,_Texas.png), by Joelean Hall (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=User:Joelean_Hall&action=edit&redlink=1), licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
    12. Fig. 3, Dadu River (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dadu_River_Hanyuan.JPG), by YubYub41 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:YubYub41), licensed by CC-BY-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Injustice

    What is an example of environmental injustice?

    An example of environmental injustice is the concentration of industrial areas in historically redlined neighborhoods in the US.

    How can we help with environmental injustice?

    We can help with environmental injustice by ensuring higher quality governance through stronger public health surveillance, environmental protections, and community-based decision-making.

    What causes environmental injustice?

    There are a range of causes of environmental injustice. Many of the arguments for placing industrial areas or waste sites in low-income communities are that land is cheapest there and companies want to save money. However, municipalities are also complicit in the process by ignoring local resident concerns and prioritizing business interests. 

    How does environmental injustice affect people?

    Environmental injustice affects people by harming their quality of life and well-being. Higher concentrations of pollution and contamination in the air, water, and land undermine healthy living standards.

    What is the act of environmental injustice?

    The act of environmental justice can take the form of enforcing environmental policies differently depending on resident income and race or placing industrial and waste sites in low-income and minority neighborhoods. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is environmental injustice? 

    Environmental injustice only occurs in the US.

    Areas with increased ___ zoning have higher concentrations of air, water, and soil pollution.


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