Understanding Injustice – linking the environment and health in research and action

by Sarah Wakefield

EnvJusticeWe all know that the environments we live in can affect our health.  We also know that some neighbourhoods are better (environmentally speaking) than others, and that some people are more likely than others to have to live, work, and play in poor quality environments.

More specifically, people who are poor, and/or have darker skin, have been found in many studies to live nearer to polluting facilities, live further from parks, and be exposed to a wider range and larger amounts of environmental contaminants.

However, proving that these environmental factors have health impacts has been tricky. Traditional health research works best when it can isolate and measure each ‘cause’ of ill health independently; in this case, getting good measures (for example, of how pollution travels from a particular site) is difficult.  And in marginalized communities, people may be facing a range of interconnected challenges – including discrimination, unemployment, poverty, and disempowerment – that harm their health, so the impact of exposure to one pollutant is often hard to separate out.

In our recent paper, Linking Health Inequality and Environmental Justice: Articulating a Precautionary Framework for Research and Action, Jamie Baxter and I lay out a different way to understand the connections between environments and health.  Our approach recognizes that people’s health, and the kinds of environments people find themselves in, are both outcomes of social injustice.  The paper describes in more detail how compounded disadvantage – that is, the overlapping hardships that result from injustice – can be seen as health harming, even when no direct causal link has been proven empirically.

What we are really suggesting is a change in the way some health researchers approach environmental justice issues.  Rather than endlessly searching for the “right” data and method to measure the health impacts of environmental injustice, we think that researchers (and activists) need to concentrate instead on understanding how and why social injustice develops and is tolerated in our society, and how these injustices can be put right.

Link to paper : Sarah E.L. Wakefield, Jamie Baxter. Environmental Justice. September 2010, 3(3): 95-102. doi:10.1089/env.2009.0044