EJ Communities

Communities and tribes confronting environmental justice issues typically are historically disadvantaged and underserved, environmentally-overburdened, and suffer adverse health conditions (NEJAC 2004).

This definition is more nuanced than just assuming that simple measurements of poverty rates or the ethnic make-up of a community can predict the vulnerability of a community to environmental justice issues. Communities may be vulnerable for a whole host of reasons, both historical and contemporary. The concept of vulnerability is central to the meaning of Environmental Justice because it recognizes the fact that certain communities come to the table with pre-existing deficits of both a physical and social nature that make the effects of environmental pollution more burdensome. In other words, not all communities have the same capacity to absorb and recover from an environmental impact. By considering the relative vulnerability of different communities we can differentiate between disadvantaged, underserved, and overburdened communities (the focus of our discussions of EJ) and communities that are initially healthy and sustainable. This focuses us on the nature of the receptor population when defining disproportionate risks or impacts (NEJAC 2004).

The EPA’s formal definition of vulnerability is the susceptibility or sensitivity, differential exposure, differential preparedness, and differential ability to recover from an impact (NEJAC 2004). This gives us the analytical framework that we need in order to understand how a disadvantaged community may face greater impacts from pollution than the general population (in other words, the same level of impact may affect different communities differently depending upon the characteristics of those communities).

An important factor to consider in all of this is health disparities, which is a subject that is being more and more widely understood in recent years. By health disparities we mean the disadvantage that some communities face when trying to access health care. For example certain subpopulations may lack access to health care because there are no hospitals nearby, or a community in which many people speak primarily a language other than English may not have doctors with adequate language skills to communicate effectively. Vulnerability and health disparities are integrally related concepts, and health disparities may be both an outcome of and a contributor to a community's vulnerability (NEJAC 2004). Obviously, being able to obtain high quality health care (especially preventative care) can greatly reduce the health consequences from exposure to pollutants.

Health Disparities were recognized by the National Institute of Health and then codified into law by the Clinton Administration in 2000:

“A population is a health disparity population if there is a significant disparity in the overall rate of disease incidence, prevalence, morbidity, mortality or survival rates in the population as compared to the health status of the general population.”
Minority Health and Health Disparities Research and Education Act United States Public Law 106-525 (2000), p. 2498 http://crchd.cancer.gov/disparities/defined.html

Some subpopulations are more able to recover from an insult or stressor because they are better prepared; they have more information about environmental risks, health, and disease, they have ready access to better health care, they are able to obtain early diagnosis of disease and have access to better nutrition. Thus social factors can play an important role in determining the ability of a community to prevent, withstand, or recover from environmental insults. Social factors include income, employment status, access to insurance, discrimination in the health care system, language ability and the existence of social capital (NEJAC 2004).

The definition of Social Capitol put forth by the Center for Disease Control is: The fabric of a community and the community pool of human resources available to it is often called its “social capital.” Refers to the individual and communal time and energy that is available for such things as community improvement, social networking, civic engagement, personal recreation, and other activities that create social bonds between individuals and groups.

Communities with high levels of social capitol are better able to withstand the negative consequences of environmental impacts because they have a greater capacity to mobilize internal resources to help affected community members. Factors that prevent community members from having the ability to participate in community life (low wages and high unemployment, lack of public transportation, lack of child care providers, high crime rates, etc.) can increase the vulnerability of a community.

Determining whether any given community falls into the category of vulnerability with regard to EJ issues can be complex and require detailed studies of risk from multiple exposures (for example, air pollution, water pollution and lack of health care providers may all interact to increase a community's risk).  


Notes and References

NEJAC. 2004. Ensuring Risk Reduction in Communities with Multiple Stressors: Environmental Justice and Cumulative Risks/Impacts.

Eric Klinberg "When Chicago Baked". Slate Magazine http://www.slate.com/id/2125572

Five Ways New Orleans is Still Struggling After Katrina. The Christian Science Monitor http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0828/Five-ways-New-Orleans-is-still-struggling-after-Katrina/Medical-services

M1701. Percent of People Below Poverty Level in the Past 12 Months (For Whom Poverty Status is Determined): 2008 
Universe: Population for whom poverty status is determined
Data Set: 2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates 
Survey: American Community Survey 
Arizona by County 
Poverty household of 1 person under 65 years old is $11,201 and for a family of 4 it is $22,025 
Dr. Cynthia Annett,
Aug 27, 2010, 10:16 AM