How does racism affect health? The pressing issue of environmental justice

Racism is far more than just direct injustice to marginalized communities. Racism has also affected the environment surrounding marginalized communities leading to higher instances of toxic chemical exposure and overall health effects. Read more to find out about environmental justice and what you can do!

Systemic racism in our country has caused irreparable harm to people of color.

One type of injustice is the environmental harm to Black people and communities.  

The work to address this environmental racism is known as “environmental justice.”  

What is environmental justice?

The two main components of environmental justice are:

  • All people should have equal protection from environmental risks. These risks include natural disasters and toxic pollution. 

  • People should have control over the laws and regulations that affect their health.

A history of environmental justice

Late 1800s

The modern environmental movement arose from concerns of pollution from the Industrial Revolution. People began to urge the government to protect health and conserve the earth’s resources. 

Late 1980s

Before the 1980s, racial issues were excluded from the environmental movement.

In 1987, The Commission for Racial Justice released a report titled “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States.” It brought the issue of environmental justice to the national level.

The report showed that people of color are exposed to more toxic pollution than white people.

It referred to this inequality as an “insidious form of racism.” 


President Bill Clinton signed an executive order on environmental justice issues.

The order created an interagency working group on environmental justice. It also required all federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their missions.


Environmental justice is still a pressing issue today.

In 2018, the EPA released a report which found that people of color are much more likely to live near emission sources and breathe polluted air. 

Current issues in environmental justice

Many people are working towards environmental justice. Despite this, the disparity of environmental harm remains extreme.

Many communities of color experience high exposure to toxic chemicals

Natural disasters have had more devastating effects. For example, Black communities did not have the support needed during and after Hurricane Katrina. They were neglected by the government due to their race. 

Climate change persists in part due to racism. “Sacrifices zones,” populated by people of color, take the brunt of the catastrophic effects of climate change. White supremacy allows for the concept of “disposable” people.

Other issues include:

Air quality

Exposure to polluted air depends on where you live. 

Outdoor air pollution comes from:

  • Coal plants

  • Oil refineries

  • Natural gas operations

  • Highway and other traffic

So living close to freeways, refineries, or industrial plants leads to higher exposure to toxic air pollution.

Indoor air pollution comes from:

  • Cooking practices

  • Old appliances

  • Old building materials

  • Mold

  • Toxic dust

  • Asbestos

  • Pests

Older houses usually contain more indoor pollution than new ones. Many newer homes are also designed for cleaner, safer indoor air

Most people would choose to live in a new house, away from the noise of a freeway, and far from power plants or refineries. 

But this requires:

  • Enough money, and the ability to get a home loan

  • Political power to protest the building of a new plant or freeway in your neighborhood

Racism has resulted in income inequality for people of color. Racist practices, such as redlining and gerrymandering, have forced communities of color to the most polluted areas. 

And exposure to this pollution over lifetimes increases the risks of asthma, allergies, and disease.


In the US, Black people are two times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people. Why?

Testing and treatment of severe cases requires access to healthcare. People of color have less access to healthcare than white people. This includes poorer quality care, even with similar income and insurance status

This is due to:

  • Geographical differences

  • More options for healthcare in affluent places

  • Provider stereotyping

  • Lack of communication and cultural barriers

Disadvantaged populations also have more underlying health conditions, due to the same reasons. 

Thus, the death rate from the coronavirus is not equal across all races in the United States.

“Everyday” toxic chemical exposures

All people are exposed to toxic chemicals every day. These chemicals are found in personal care and household products. 

They include bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and parabens. They can act like hormones in the body. 

They can cause:

People of color have higher exposures to these chemicals

In a study of pregnant women, Black and Hispanic women had 8-10 times more BPA in their blood than white women. 

Similar trends are seen with phthalates and parabens. Flame retardants are also higher in people of color.

Researchers don’t know why this racial disparity exists. They think it may be in part due to differences in personal care product use, especially beauty products

Thus, there is an urgent need for more research of racial disparities in toxic exposures, and the reasons behind them. 

We also need greater awareness by the consumer and beauty industries to reduce toxic chemical exposures in women of color. 

Million Marker’s role in environmental justice

Part of environmental justice is allowing communities to take matters into their own hands. One way to do this is through toxic chemical testing

Million Marker is working to make toxic chemical testing available to everyone. This will help protect the health of future generations—toxic chemicals are most harmful to growing fetuses and children

Our mission is to reduce toxic chemical exposures for all people, through testing, education, and research. We are helping empower people to take control over their health. We will continue to support environmental justice and work against racism in our country.

What can you do?

It is clear that action must be taken NOW to protect and support people of color.

Here are some resources and ideas to help you get involved in groups that are fighting for change: