Research, News and Global Impact



Environmental racism is a type of systemic racism in which policies and practices place industrial facilities in low-income communities, including communities of color. This promotes highly polluted environments, which often cause health problems for residents.

Environmental racism is a form of inequality where people of color face a higher burden of exposure to environmental hazards such as pollution. The term has existed formally since a series of protests that started in the 1980s.

The United States General Accounting Office first recognized environmental racism in a 1983 report who compared the racial distribution of people in hazardous waste environments, such as plastic factories, highways, and power plants. They found that 75% of communities near hazardous landfills were predominantly black.

Since the first report, researchers identified more environmental burdens causing racial inequalities. These include disproportionate water quality, lack of sanitation, and high exposure to carbon dioxide emissions in communities of color. Such conditions can cause health problems, including different types of cancer and respiratory diseases like asthma.

The proximity of communities of color to dangerous environments is a systematic problem that affects civil rights. This is because it is easier and cheaper for policies and practices to locate industrial facilities in communities where there are fewer resources to respond.

To some extent, wealth also contributes to exposure to pollutants, with low-income families of all ethnicities being more at risk than higher-income families. However, research suggests that the association between environmental risk and race is stronger than that between environmental risk and wealth. This makes environmental inequalities first and foremost a racial problem.

In this article, learn more about environmental racism, including research on the topic, some examples, and the global impact of this problem.

A 2018 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used particulate emissions to compare the environmental burden of pollution in different communities in the United States

Research found that the burden was 35% higher for people living in poverty in general and 28% higher for people of color. Blacks, in particular, had a burden level 54% higher than that of the general population.

There is a increasing number case studies showing how communities of color have disproportionately high exposure to health and environmental risks.

Problems related to environmental racism are increasing that climate change is exacerbating environmental events. This article highlights three prominent examples of environmental racism in the United States:

  • the flint water crisis
  • arsenic contamination in the San Joaquin Valley
  • “Cancer Valley” in Louisiana

Flint water crisis

In 2014, the town of Flint, MI, changed its water source to the Flint River to save money. However, he did not use appropriate treatment methods for the water supply. This exposed the city’s 100,000 residents – most of whom were black – to bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Legionella and contaminants such as lead, which is a neurotoxin.

The poor quality of the water made the water smelly and discolored. Even though people suffered from hair loss and skin problems, the city took no action for 18 months. During this time, 12 people died from Legionnaires’ disease.

the Michigan Civil Rights Commission identified the situation as a crisis that stemmed from a history of segregation in Flint, where communities of color were limited to living in areas with substandard resources.

Arsenic contaminantsto in the San Joaquin Valley

Arsenic is a chemical element found naturally in groundwater, but exacerbated by agricultural activities.

In humans, exposure to arsenic can cause cancer in:

In the San Joaquin Valley, California, industrial uses – such as wood treatment processes and the prevalence of pesticides – add to the natural concentration of arsenic. Irrigation and drainage activities then cause the spread of arsenic. It accumulates in shallower groundwater levels.

However, in the San Joaquin Valley, the main source of drinking water for around 1 million inhabitants is groundwater, with the worst exposure for low income communities and communities of color.

A 2012 study found that arsenic contamination in the San Joaquin Valley was lower in areas with higher home ownership and that people of color had disproportionately higher exposure to harmful arsenic levels .

“Cancer Valley” in Louisiana

A report 2021 highlights concerns about the industrialization of the strip of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, known as “Cancer Alley,” in the state of southern Louisiana.

The report suggests that pollutants from current developments put the local population, most of whom are black, at risk for cancer and respiratory illnesses, among other illnesses. This suggests that federal environmental regulations do not protect residents.

However, developers continue to industrialize the area. For example, developer FG LA LLC obtained approval to start the “Sun Project»In 2018. This project is estimated to have more than double the risk that local populations will develop cancer.

This is a development that will produce the following products:

  • polyethylene
  • polypropylene
  • polymer
  • ethylene glycol

The Sunshine Project is expected to produce such significant carbon emissions that the annual production of carbon dioxide in a single parish is expected to be greater than that produced in 113 countries combined.

In addition to having direct effects, development is should accelerate climate change and contribute to the global problem of plastic waste.

The problems of Louisiana’s “Cancer Valley” are clear, current examples of environmental racism. Industrialization puts the predominantly African American population at a disproportionate risk of developing health problems, violating the following human rights:

  • right to equality and non-discrimination
  • right to life
  • right to health
  • right to breathe clean air
  • right to an adequate standard of living
  • cultural rights

Environmental racism is not confined to the United States. It also occurs globally.

For example, end-of-life electrical waste, or electronic waste, can be dangerous if people do not dispose of it properly. This is because the products release toxins. However, according to a 2014 article, many countries are dealing with the problem by shipping 75-80% electronic waste to countries in Africa and Asia for disposal.

Additionally, the same document reports that in 2003, the UK transported undeclared e-waste to countries in Africa and Asia, such as India, and the US cleared 80% of their electronic waste illegally.

Another international example is the 1984 incident in Bhopal, India, where a pesticide factory owned by the American company Union Carbide 27 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas leaked. This created a poisonous vapor that killed 25,000 people and caused health problems to over 120,000 people.

The incident was due to the negligence of the plant, as Union Carbide did not maintain the plant. The company refused to be tried and never cleaned up the site. The leak continues to affect the health of residents today.

As with other components of systematic racism, environmental racism is a problem that requires national and global action if equal rights are to be achieved.

Environmental racism is a form of racial inequality found in the United States and around the world. The impact of environmentally hazardous plants and materials takes a toll on the health of communities of color and low-income populations, often causing cancer, respiratory disease and other health problems.

The Flint Water Crisis, Arsenic Contamination in the San Joaquin Valley and Louisiana’s “Valley of Cancer” are significant current events that highlight the damaging effects of environmental racism in the United States.

National and global action is needed to combat environmental racism and promote racial equality.



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