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Last Reviewed: April 25, 2008
Last Modified: March 17, 2009
Content Source:
Office of Minority Health & Health Disparities (OMHD)

Environmental Justice

Environmental Justice is 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. Fair treatment means that no group of people, including a racial, ethnic, or a socioeconomic group, should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations or the execution of federal, state, local, and tribal programs and policies.

Meaningful involvement means that:

(1) potentially affected community residents have an appropriate opportunity to participate in decisions about a proposed activity that will affect their environment and/or health;
(2) the public's contribution can influence the regulatory agency's decision;
(3) the concerns of all participants involved will be considered in the decision making process; and
(4) the decision makers seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected.1

White House Executive Order 12898 requires each federal agency to make environmental justice a part of its mission by identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories.  The Interagency Working Group (IWG) on Environmental Justice, established by this executive order, is charged with reducing disparities between minority and non-minority communities in exposure to hazards including lead, toxic waste, air pollution, and pesticides.2 These exposures are associated with a variety of ailments including asthma, birth defects, and cancer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (CDC/ATSDR) are committed to documenting and correcting disparities in exposure to hazardous materials and ensuring environmental justice for minority and low-income communities. CDC/ATSDR's mission is to prevent harm to human health and diminished quality of life from exposure to hazardous substances found at waste sites, in unplanned releases, and in other sources of pollution present in the environment. CDC/ATSDR identifies communities where people might be exposed to hazardous substances in the environment, determines the site's hazards, and recommends actions that need to be taken to safeguard the health of community members. CDC/ATSDR works with communities, environmental groups, tribal governments and local, state, and other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to protect the public health.

The two areas of minority health and environmental justice focus attention on the environmental and human health condition in communities of color, low-income communities, and other communities that have concerns about improving health and quality of life related to environmental threats. CDC/ATSDR works to educate members of these communities about their risk, and collaborates in training minorities for health professions in order to enhance programs that will improve the health status of minority groups.

The Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities (OMHD) supports CDC/ATSDR’s National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) in its mission to promote health and quality of life by preventing or controlling those diseases or deaths that result from interactions between people and their environments. NCEH applies epidemiological methodology to communities at risk for hazardous exposures, implements educational programs for those at risk for exposure, and helps to formulate environmental policy.

Workplace safety and exposure is a serious issue for minorities. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related disease and injury. NIOSH is responsible for conducting research on the full scope of occupational disease and injury ranging from lung disease in miners to carpal tunnel syndrome in computer users.

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