What is Environmental Racism?

Disproportionately, people of color are exposed to a wide variety of health hazards in their immediate or surrounding neighborhoods. This is known as environmental racism. This form of systemic racism leads to decreased health outcomes in communities of color, especially in poorer communities.


Toxic waste dumping and air contamination are the only forms of pollution in poor communities of color.


Pollution comes in many forms which include high noise levels from traffic or construction and constant bright lights from major cities. The Environmental Protection Agency notes some health issues caused by noise pollution are stress, high blood pressure, and sleep disruption.
Light pollution shares many of these same effects by causing a drop in melatonin production, the hormone responsible for inducing sleep, boosting the immune system, and other hormone-related biological activities.

What are Some Examples?

The most common forms of environmental racism are exposure to:

  • Air pollutants
  • Waste dumping
  • Groundwater contamination

Some lesser-known forms of environmental racism are exposure to:

  • Noise pollution
  • Light pollution
  • The heat island effect

According to a 2007 report analyzing the progress made in cleaning up toxic waste sites in poor neighborhoods in the US, they found that racial disparities were even greater than were previously documented. The report shows that people of color are disproportionately situated in neighborhoods that have hazardous waste facilities nearby. These types of environmental hazards have a direct impact on negative health effects.

...people of color are disproportionately situated in neighborhoods that have hazardous waste facilities nearby.

Environmental Racism & Health Outcomes

These environmental factors contribute to higher rates of chronic respiratory conditions, like asthma. The presence of chronic respiratory conditions worsens one’s ability to fight other respiratory diseases. One such example in our lives today is COVID-19. Read more about how the environment can play a role in contracting the illness.

An example that is very close to home are the confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in North Carolina. These facilities are used to produce pork on a large scale while using very little space. Due to the number of pigs that can be held at one site, there is an overwhelming amount of waste produced. This waste is often held in large pits dug specifically for waste called a lagoon, and is sometimes used as fertilizer. When it is sprayed onto fields, this waste contaminates the air and can runoff into the groundwater. The waste is full of compounds and bacteria that can harm the health of the environment and people that are located nearby. CAFOs represent a harmful environmental issue that disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income communities in the state of North Carolina.

Environmental Justice

The Environmental Justice (EJ) movement is a form of activism that advocates for everyone’s right to live in a safe and healthy environment. Advocates are concerned with not only the laws that govern the environment, but also the practical effects of those laws. They seek to hold everyone accountable to ensure the environment is safe and habitable for people and the organisms that live in it.

The Environmental Justice movement became widely recognized in 1982 in Warren County, NC. However, the concept of respecting the environment and the people who live within it was not invented in the 80’s. Indigenous people all across the world have prioritized respect and protection of the environment for millennia. Indigenous organizing efforts were unified in 1990 under the grassroots organization called the Indigenous Environmental Network. This organization aims to protect the environment and the people by emphasizing indigenous beliefs and knowledge about environmental protection.

By protecting the environment, we also protect the people who live in it.