Clean air, clean water and healthy soil are birthrights. However, many people do not live in healthy environments. These groups, disproportionately people of low income and people of color, are more likely to live next to polluting facilities and to suffer ill effects from them and are less able to prevent and remedy such inequities due to a lack of political and economic strength. Environmental justice can be measured by quantifying the exposure to pollution in communities surrounding a particular facility; by identifying demographic attributes (race, income, etc.) and the levels of disease of a community; and determining whether a disproportionate exposure to pollution can be linked to harm to human health.
Children are more at-risk to environmental toxic substances than adults. Their smaller size puts them closer to the ground and indoor surfaces, so they are more closely exposed to surface hazards and to the vaporization of these materials. Per pound of body weight, their surface area is about twice that of adults, so absorption of liquid vapor toxins through the skin is almost doubled. The metabolic rate of small children is about twice the rate of adults, leading to proportionately greater food, fluid and oxygen intake. Susceptibility to toxic substances is increased because the organ systems of children are still developing, the immune, reproductive and central nervous systems are not fully mature, and children’s ability to detoxify chemicals may be impaired.
All children are affected by environmental hazards, but children living in poverty and children in racial or ethnic communities are at disproportionate risk for toxic exposure. Three out of five African Americans and Latino Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites. More than 870,000 of the 1.9 million housing units for the poor, mostly people of color, are within a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the EPA. Lead poisoning affects an estimated 890,000 American preschoolers. African American children are five times more likely to suffer from lead poisoning than Caucasian children. African Americans and Latinos are almost three times more likely than whites to die from asthma.
Caught in a spiral of poverty and environmental degradation, the poor and the powerless most directly bear the burden and suffer disproportionally from the effects of environmental problems.