NCEH and ATSDR post this blog in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, January 21, 2013.
An industrial plant, a truck depot, a hazardous waste site, a garbage dump—would you mind having one of these in your neighborhood? Of course you would! No one wants to live with dirty air or water, constant noise and traffic, or sickening smells. But many communities have lived with these unhealthy conditions for years.
In fact, studies have shown that those who live, work, and play in America’s most polluted environments are commonly minority and low income populations. In addition, these groups often have inadequate access to transportation, housing, medical care, public health, jobs, healthy food sources, and schools.
Environmental justice (EJ), the movement working to reduce this inequality, seeks to achieve 2 important goals:
- Fair treatment: To ensure that no group of people has to deal with an unequal share of the harmful environmental effects coming from the day-to-day waste of a modern society.
- Meaningful involvement: To ensure that potentially affected community residents can participate in decisions about activities that will affect their environments or their health.
At the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), we work in communities across the nation to keep people safe and secure from environment threats to their health. As public health professionals, we know that being exposed to environmental hazards directly affects a person’s ability to live a healthy life.
NCEH’s Division of Emergency and Environmental Health Services (EEHS) works closely with communities to reduce exposure to hazardous substances in their homes, schools, and workplaces. Dr. LaToria Whitehead, formerly of the Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, is now the EJ officer and public health advisor working with Dr. Sharunda Buchanan in the EEHS Office of the Director. I invited Latoria to explain her passion for EJ and her work.
Before coming to CDC, I worked for the Duval County Health Department in Jacksonville, Florida, as an environmental specialist. My director there introduced me to the concept of EJ. I couldn’t stop reading about it, and I started attending EJ meetings and conferences. I really enjoyed working with our community partners, hearing their issues and feeling like I was making a difference in the community.
Working on EJ issues really hit home for me! As I heard community members talk about what they were dealing with, I recognized these issues had also affected my family. Any day that I walked down my own street, I could smell pollution. We didn’t have nearby grocery stores with fresh vegetables and fruits at reasonable prices. My neighborhood had no sidewalks. Getting regular exercise was difficult; we had to drive to the local high school stadium and walk on the track.
It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that my quality of life was affected by these things. I began to realize that my neighborhood should have the same basic amenities as neighborhoods on the other side of town. Why didn’t my community have sidewalks, and why did we smell the pollution as soon as we stepped out the door? I couldn’t comprehend it. For me personally, my thirst for knowledge transitioned into advocacy.
The health of a community suffers when people don’t have access to affordable housing and transportation connected with nearby sidewalks, parks, fresh air, grocery stores, and safe neighborhoods. Our entire division supports regulations, policies, and laws that keep people safe and healthy in their environments.
In 2006, I began to work as a public health advisor in the EEHS Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, which focuses on hazards that affect health in individual homes. Because a healthy home is the foundation of a healthy community, the branch works to uncover housing hazards for all populations, especially those who are the most vulnerable, such as children and the elderly and minority, low-income, and homeless communities. And we join with communities to create sustainable local solutions.
I am very excited about my new role as EJ officer under Dr. Buchanan, the NCEH/ATSDR EJ Coordinator. Among many other duties, I serve as an EJ liaison with CDC and CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity. I also work with EJ communities, advocates, and organizations and with the offices and divisions in NCEH/ATSDR. I attend EJ meetings and forums; promote EJ strategies; identify opportunities to provide technical assistance, outreach, education and training for EJ groups; and notify EJ communities about grants, cooperative agreements, and other projects available through NCEH/ATSDR. This position allows me to bring my passion for EJ to work for health equity, justice, and policy on a local, state, tribal, and national level.
Although we at NCEH /ATSDR work daily to protect people from hazardous substances and unhealthy environments, we know that EJ issues continue in neighborhoods and cities across the nation. By addressing the health effects of these issues and supporting our partners, NCEH/ATSDR will continue to promote safe and healthy environments for all citizens, especially those who are most at risk. Dr. Whitehead’s passion and the resources of NCEH/ATSDR will be key to reducing inequity and improving health in EJ Communities across the nation.
For more information about our EJ work, please see