(June 2000) A growing movement known as “environmental justice” has sought to ensure that no particular segment of the population, such as minority groups, bears a disproportionate share of exposure to environmental hazards. But demonstrating environmental “injustice” requires data, and studies up to now have been infrequent and — some say — flawed.

Environmental justice first received attention in the 1980s following several studies on toxic waste sites in poor communities of the South. The issue gained visibility in the 1990s as environmentalists joined with the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus and others to highlight toxic waste issues facing minority communities. President Clinton joined the effort when he issued a 1994 executive order urging federal agencies to ensure that minority communities no longer suffer discrimination in the development of environmental regulations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to pursue civil rights complaints alleging that states acted in a discriminatory manner when issuing permits for chemical and manufacturing plants.

As the movement gained strength, so did the desire for additional evidence. One study, published in 1994 by the Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington, D.C., stated that people of color were 47 percent more likely than whites to live near toxic waste sites. The authors reached their conclusions by breaking down toxic release information by zip code, and then analyzing the racial composition of areas with the highest concentration of toxins.

The report also revealed problems in the South and Midwest. In Mississippi, people of color represented 64 percent of residents near toxic facilities — but just 37 percent of the state population. In Kansas, minorities were 12 percent of the population but represented 34 percent of those living near toxic sites.

The Institute of Medicine, a research arm of the National Academy of Sciences, published a report in 1999 that called for more data on the issue yet concluded that residents of these areas face a “double jeopardy” — higher exposure to potential environmental problems and lack of resources and political muscle to curb pollution.

Flawed Data?

Marty Halper, senior science advisor in the EPA Office of Environmental Justice, claims the findings of the major studies done to date are not very accurate and are of “little help in establishing causal relationships.” Halper stated that many of the studies used address data from the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act Information System, and those addresses — of landfills, storage facilities, and transfer stations that have permits for dealing with hazardous wastes — often represented corporate offices, rather than the locations of facilities.

Halper also criticized studies for equating proximity to a facility with actual exposure. Most studies, he said, take a single point for a facility, draw a circle an arbitrary distance from the source of emissions, and then estimate who lives within the circle. “Zip code studies tend to be the most inaccurate,” he said, because they do not consider where the population is in relation to a facility. In addition, the boundaries of census data do not match up with the boundaries of the zip code area. Attempts to correct errors associated with nonmatching boundaries introduce large errors because minority and low-income groups are not likely to be distributed homogeneously across blocks.

In many studies, the error introduced by bad location data and lack of boundary matching means “the error is greater than the significance of the results,” said Halper. He recommended reorienting studies to look at health disparities and their causes. “Much of the difference we are seeing may be the result of differences in vulnerability. … We probably shouldn’t be putting any facilities in these [low-income and minority] areas because the effects will be more severe,” he said.

Outlook for Action

This issue is gaining a place on research agendas. The Institute of Medicine has suggested improved collection of environmental health information, with links to specific populations and communities; more training for local health professionals; and greater involvement by communities in cleanup discussions.

The EPA is also moving ahead. Halper indicated that the meeting in May of the EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council would further explore questions such as how to do community-based health studies and how to increase the level of participation of various health-related agencies in research.

Meanwhile, environmental advocates such as the Interim National Black Environmental and Economic Justice Coordinating Committee (INBEEJCC) have declared a national state of emergency on environmental racism and economic injustice. Kim Freeman, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Preamble Center, which belongs to the INBEEJCC, noted that while the issue is vital for low-income, minority areas today, other communities face future risks. “What’s in their backyard today,” she said, “may be in our front yard tomorrow.”

Charles Dervarics is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.

For More Information

Copies of the Institute of Medicine report, Toward Environmental Justice: Research, Education, and Health Policy Needs, are available on the website of the National Academy Press: www.nap.edu.