Health, Wealth and Race
Health and healthcare access are significant aspects of the injustices plaguing our nation. Traits such as race and class have noteworthy impact on how healthy an individual may be. To truly understand this, let’s first look at a quote from Dr. Robert Bullard, who has been deemed the father of environmental justice.
“Today, zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual’s health and well-being. Individuals who physically live on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ are subjected to elevated environmental health threats” (Bullard, 2018).
Food deserts, landfills, and chemical plants all impact an individual’s health and these are commonly located in areas predominantly made up of people of color or people living under or near the poverty line. According to the 1987 report “Toxic Waste and Race,” Black and Latino Americans are exposed to 56 and 63% more pollution than they produce, respectively, in addition to three out of five landfills being in these neighborhoods as well. The disproportionate exposure to toxic chemicals is no coincidence; these areas are picked because they are not occupied by white, wealthy individuals. When these communities are deprived of access to healthy foods and exposed to polluted land, air, and water from landfills and chemical plants, health issues ensue. Cancer, asthma, upper respiratory issues, and skin rash rates all increase due to this exposure. An example of this can be seen in Cancer Alley, which is an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Here, petrochemical plants and other industrial facilities pollute this water via off-site dumping or ground contamination. People whose water comes from this section of the Mississippi River are 2.1 times more likely to develop rectal cancer and those who lived within one mile of a chemical facility are 4.5 times more likely to develop lung cancer (Singer, 2011). While these rates of cancer are alarming to all, they are particularly distressing to people of color, as “Black people are more likely to die from cancer than any other racial group” (Taylor, 2014).
These unjust occurrences have been the case for years, but the COVID19 pandemic shone a light on this incidence through the disproportionate vaccine distributions and COVID-related deaths in regards to minority communities. Dr. Bullard stated that “Black Americans are three times more likely… to contract COVID-19 and nearly twice as likely to die from the virus” (Bullard, 2020). Additionally, vaccine roll outs were initially focused in wealthy, white areas while people of color faced the unequal burden of COVID-related risks by essential workers; they made up the majority of “high-risk, low-pay” jobs such as nursing assistants, orderlies, and psychiatric aides. The reason for the disproportionate contraction of COVID is not yet fully understood, however it is likely due to the other environmental stressors discussed above.
The presence of these injustices is a key component in advocating for increased health access, regardless of one’s race or economic status. Proximity to a doctor, for many, can be the difference between a healthy life and one filled with the consequences of the instances of environmental injustice discussed above. With increased access to a healthcare professional, they will experience an increased quality of life, quicker disease detection, faster treatment, and a longer life. Further, and though a pandemic does not come around so frequently, COVID-19 showcased how low-access to adequate and equal healthcare leads to increased contraction and mortality of illnesses.
Bullard, Robert. “LEARN about ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE.” Dr Robert Bullard, 2018, drrobertbullard.com/learn-about-environmental-justice/.
Bullard, Robert. “Racism and COVID-19, Two Pandemics Threatening Black America.” Dr Robert Bullard, 19 Aug. 2020, drrobertbullard.com/racism-and-covid-19-two-pandemics-threatening-black-america/.
Singer, Merrill. “Down Cancer Alley: The Lived Experience of Health and Environmental Suffering in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 2, June 2011, pp. 141–163. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1548-1387.2011.01154.x.
Taylor, Dorceta. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, And Residential Mobility. NYU Press, 2014.