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Environmental Racism in the United States

Shaila Venkat

Environmental racism: it is a concept that is foreign to most, yet painfully familiar to communities of color. Referring to a form of institutional racism that has led to polluting structures such as landfills or oil refineries being disproportionately placed near POC (people of color) communities, this form of discrimination is one that is deeply embedded in American society, resulting in a slew of negative health and safety effects on those living in these areas.

In a study conducted by Harvard’s Public School of Health, ethnic and racial minorities are at a higher risk for premature deaths as a result of increased exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, or fine particulate matter. In 2016, the concentration of PM2.5 was 13.7% higher in predominantly Black communities than in predominantly White ones. Additionally, areas with an overrepresentation of White populations were consistently found to have lower PM2.5 levels than areas with higher Asian, Black, and Hispanic or Latino populations.

This issue manages to bridge the seemingly disparate gap between the poor and rich, as communities of color are consistently exposed to higher levels of air pollution regardless of their socioeconomic status. Research conducted by the EPA revealed that POC were more likely to experience greater than average levels of exposure to sources in comparison to White Americans, holding true across both rural and economic lines. With racial and ethnic disparities being found in nearly all emissions categories, it becomes increasingly evident that racial discrepancies exist across environmental lines.

Pollution like this is often attributed to the proximity of these communities to waste facilities, with Scientific American reporting that of the 9 million people that live within 3 kilometers of these structures, 56% of them are POC. The toxic pollutants generated by these structures permeate the surrounding communities in the form of particulate matter, water pollution, or chemical waste, the likes of which can have harrowing effects on the health of community members.

In addition to causing a host of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, a connection between cancer and communities near polluting facilities has also been observed. An investigative report by the New York Times described the case of the predominantly Black Grays Ferry neighborhood in Philadelphia, where there were increasing cases of gallbladder cancer being reported over the past decade. The neighborhood, which was located in close proximity to an oil refinery, had an estimated 2 dozen cases of gallbladder cancer, manifesting at a much younger age than it would if it occurred naturally. With 3 out of 5 Black and Hispanic Americans living in communities surrounded by toxic waste, the adverse health effects are only worsening in impact, leaving communities devastated and families broken.

Despite the dire circumstances of the situation, there is still hope to fix this situation. Time Magazine reported on the increased discussion surrounding the intersection of race and environmental policy, with President Biden even remarking that his $1.7 trillion spending plan included “clean-energy revolution and environmental justice.” Environmental justice policies have also begun to permeate Capitol Hill, with the House Committee on the Climate Crisis with the document incorporating “a slew of policies to address environmental racism” from the Environmental Justice for All Act.

With the racial gap becoming an important point of contention in American society, it is only a matter of time before the destructive effects of environmental racism will require acknowledgement. If we are to properly address this extensive issue, we have to take action to ensure the health and safety of POC communities for decades to come.


  1. Harvard T. H. Chan. (2022, January 12). Racial, ethnic minorities and low-income groups in U.S. exposed to higher levels of air pollution. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved April 23, 2023 from racial-ethnic-minorities-low-income-groups-u-s-air-pollution/

  2. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2021, September 20). Study finds exposure to air pollution higher for people of color regardless of region or income. Retrieved April 23, 2023 from

  3. Kay, J, & Katz, C. (2012, June 4). Pollution, poverty and people of color: Living with industry. Scientific American. Retrieved April 27, 2023 from

  4. Villarosa, L. (2020, July 28). Pollution is killing Black Americans: This community fought back. The New York Times. Retrieved April 27, 2023 from

  5. Worland, J. (2020, July 9). Why the larger climate movement is finally embracing the fight against environmental racism. Time Magazine. Retrieved April 25, 2023 from

  6. Image from 


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