Environmental health, in its broadest sense, connotes places that are free of exposures that threaten human health and that promote healthy, wholesome lives. Such places may be defined on a very small scale— a home, a workplace, or a neighborhood—or on a much larger scale—a river system, a metropolitan area, or the entire earth.
Healthy environments are not equally distributed across populations. Within the United States, the term “environmental racism” emerged in the 1980s, reflecting evidence of disparities across racial groups (and ethnic and income groups as well) in exposures to environmental toxins.1,2 Indeed, there is increasing recognition that members of ethnic and racial minorities, whether in the workplace or in community settings, sustain disproportionate risk from chemical, physical, biological, and psychological hazards. These disparities, in turn, are related to health disparities, which have been defined as differences in health—or likely determinants of health—that are systematically associated with different levels of underlying social advantage or position in a social hierarchy. Braveman et al.3 explain that social advantage or position is reflected by economic resources, occupation, education, racial/ethnic group, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics associated with greater resources, influence, prestige, and social inclusion.
“Environmental justice” is a complementary term. While it explicitly refers to fair and equitable access to healthy environments, it also evokes broader underlying themes important in public health: access to information, community-based participatory decision-making, and social justice.4 Environmental justice is global in scope. The underlying notion is that economic and social disadvantages carry an increased risk of harm related to environmental exposures, a pattern that emerges both within nations and across national boundaries.
The concept of environmental justice—or distributive and procedural justice with respect to environmental goods—has a long history,5 rooted in the teachings of major religions and the practices of ancient societies.6,7,8
In recent years, environmental justice has been recognized as a subset of human rights. In the early 1970s, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment declared that “Man has the fundamental right to freedom, equality and adequate conditions of life, in an environment of a quality that permits a life of dignity and well-being”.9 Twenty years later, the UN Draft Principles on Human Rights and the Environment began with these three statements:
Human rights, an ecologically sound environment, sustainable development and peace are interdependent and indivisible.
All persons have the right to a secure, healthy and ecologically sound environment. This right and other human rights, including civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, are universal, interdependent and indivisible.
All persons shall be free from any form of discrimination in regard to actions and decisions that affect the environment.
DDHRE, UN 1994
Within the United States, environmental justice concerns have focused on ethnic and racial minorities, including African-American, Hispanic, and Native American communities, and on poor ...