Environmental Justice is the simple idea that everyone should have equal access to a healthy environment. Environment, in this context, can refer to the natural world or the built environment, such as your home. For example, air quality can be poor for people living next to or downwind of factories that emit contaminates into the air. However, poor air quality can also be the result of living in dilapidated housing where mold, lead, asbestos or other issues exist and contaminate the inside air. Studies have shown that certain groups of people are more likely to experiences these types of harms than other groups. Having a low income will limit the ability of people to afford housing repairs or to move to another location. As a result, being from a poor demographic increases your chance of having asthma and/or succumbing to other breathing ailments. The air quality examples demonstrate how the health of a community is affected by the lack of environmental justice.
Although environmental justice has been around since the 1990s, government agencies are experiencing a renewed commitment to the process of ensuring it through their policy making decisions. The Ohio Department of Health (ODH) recognizes that Ohioans face health disparities related to race, income, and education, among other factors. According to ODH, “Low-income people and those without a high school education also struggle with many disparities, from poverty and housing quality to overall health status and access to care.” People living in Ohio’s Appalachian counties are more likely to face multiple barriers to health. “Opioid addition and underemployment” are two barriers ODH references that disproportionately affect low-income Ohioans and are exacerbating health disparities. The Creating Healthy Communities Program, which is a grant ODH uses to balance the scales of justice when it comes to protecting health, is administered locally by the Meigs County Health Dept. (MCHD).
At the federal level, the United States EPA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” A pilot program designed to educate community advocates on how to be “meaningfully involved” is currently underway in the Dayton, Ohio region. “It’s the first academy in Ohio that will be co-sponsored by the EPA, as well as the first Environmental Justice Academy in Region 5, which includes Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota” (epa.gov). All levels of government seem to be taking steps designed to lessen the burden of negative environmental impacts associated with one’s demographic status.
In practice, the MCHD frequently references demographic statistics in grant applications, Community Health Assessments and related plans. Demonstrating need is one way we can help secure funding that will ease socioeconomic disparities. We have been administering the Creating Healthy Communities grant for more than 10 years. These monies have increased the amount of green space available for public use as well as helped to provide access to affordable healthy foods. In addition, we have also applied for and been awarded more than half a million dollars in Waste Water Pollution and Control Grant Funding with the goal of eliminating sewage contamination entering Meigs County streams and water ways. These are only two of many programs we administer that attempt to balance the scales of environmental justice for the citizens of Meigs County. Every dollar we acquire in grant funding not only helps the end recipient but also supports the local businesses and workers called upon to provide services or products. In that way, Environmental Justice is a movement of which we are all a part.
Dawn Keller is a Registered Sanitarian with the Meigs County Health Department.