Pollution results from social inequality, and it can also contribute to the continuation of inequality. The two connect in a way that can make it difficult for affected communities to avoid the impacts of environmental problems. In some cases, those affected can take action with the help of environmental justice lawyers.
Why Pollution Disproportionately Impacts Poor and Minority Communities
Environmental inequality in the United States too often affects vulnerable communities.
Government officials and corporate leaders have long chosen low-income and minority neighborhoods as sites for landfills, toxic waste storage facilities, and other facilities that release pollution. These hazardous sites can harm the environment and negatively impact the health of people who live in the surrounding communities.
Studies have found a clear link between pollution and inequality. The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality states: “Income and power inequality tend to dissociate polluters from payers and thus act as a disincentive for ecological responsibility or as an accelerator of ecological irresponsibility.” In other words, out of sight, out of mind; polluters don’t have to see or suffer the consequences, while poorer neighborhoods bear the brunt.
Factors Contributing to Environmental Inequality
Racism, housing discrimination, segregation, economic inequality, and differences in property values can lead to concentrations of minority residents in areas with higher levels of pollution. Low pay, dangerous and unsafe workplaces, and lack of access to healthcare, clean air and water, and nutritious foods can contribute to medical problems.
How Pollution Can Affect Human Health
People who live in areas that are impacted by air, soil, and water pollution can experience a wide range of health effects. Consider communities without access to clean drinking water. Contaminated drinking water may contain dangerous chemicals that can cause serious and permanent neurological damage. A lack of sanitation can allow serious illnesses to spread.
One prominent example of this kind of pollution is Camp Lejeune, a military training facility in North Carolina. Polluted water at the base from August 1953 to December 1987 resulted in illnesses for those exposed, prompting our environmental justice lawyers to take action for victims. Learn more about the health risks of Camp Lejeune water contamination.
Similarly, pollution from industrial sites, traffic congestion, and public transportation can contribute to poor air quality. Residents exposed to air pollution may suffer from respiratory illnesses (such as asthma) at disproportionate rates. The American Lung Association notes that several studies have found higher rates of premature death from particle pollution in predominantly African-American and lower-income communities than in mostly white communities.
How Economic Inequality and Pollution Can Create a Vicious Cycle
People may move into communities that have already suffered the effects of environmental degradation because poverty makes them unable to afford homes in safer and healthier communities. Intergenerational poverty can also keep people stuck in polluted communities despite known environmental problems.
The previously-mentioned Stanford study notes that inequality affects the health of disadvantaged individuals and communities, which can make it more difficult for them to adapt to environmental changes. People who are living in poverty may not be able to afford nutritious food and may not have access to quality health care. If their employer does not provide paid sick days, taking time off can make it even harder to get by financially. They may therefore decide not to take a day off to visit a doctor or stay home and rest when necessary.
These effects can contribute to a cycle of poverty and inequality. People who suffer from serious medical problems but do not have the financial means to seek health care can be trapped in polluted neighborhoods. Their children can grow up in those unsafe conditions and experience similar effects themselves.
Long-Term Effects of Environmental Inequality
Pollution, poverty, and inequality can impact families for generations. Pregnant women who live in polluted neighborhoods may experience complications, or their babies may suffer from serious health problems, such as spina bifida and cleft palates.
Those medical issues can impact a child’s ability to learn, which can have lifelong consequences, repeating the cycle of social inequality. Children who do not graduate from high school may struggle to find employment or may only be able to obtain low-paying jobs. They and their children may then be trapped in a cycle of poverty and may continue to live in environmentally degraded communities.
Pollution Results From Structural Inequality
If people are desperately trying to get by, they may take actions that have negative impacts on their communities to make a living. In those cases, immediate economic needs can take precedence over the long-term health of the environment and the health of the people who live in those impoverished communities.
The Stanford study backs this up, highlighting that richer communities report caring more about the environment and adopting environmentally-friendly practices than poorer neighborhoods. However, their wealth affords them these choices, while impoverished communities do not have the same options. The result is the environment suffers, and pollution worsens, as they also are subject to the vicious cycle of poverty.
An Environmental Justice Lawyer Can Fight for Your Vulnerable Community
All across the United States, people in positions of power have made decisions without regard for how they could affect the health, economic opportunities, and lives of others. Ben Crump Law, PLLC represents people who have suffered because of those decisions and helps them seek justice.
We understand the links between pollution, economic inequality, discrimination, and intergenerational poverty. Our team can fight to seek justice for your family and other members of your community.
We can file a lawsuit against those who have polluted your neighborhood. We can seek compensation and seek to correct the damage to your community. Call the office of Ben Crump Law, PLLC to speak with a member of our staff and schedule a free consultation to learn more.