Column: Environmental regulations protect our most vulnerable communities

Associated PressIn a photo from Jan 26, 2016, registered nurse Brian Jones draws a blood sample from Grayling Stefek, 5, at the Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Mich. The students were being tested for lead after the metal was found in the city’s drinking water.

Beginning this month, as part of an executive order from President Donald Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will hold public meetings seeking feedback on environmental programs “that could be repealed, replaced, or modified to make them less burdensome.” The question to ask is: Less burdensome for whom?

When President Richard Nixon created the EPA in 1970, he made clear that its primary mission was to protect public health and quality of life. Congress subsequently made the EPA responsible for implementing landmark legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

In the generation since, we’ve witnessed tremendous improvements in environmental quality, from radical reductions in smog to phase outs of toxic substances, such as lead, in paint and gasoline. Urban communities, lower-income communities and communities of color especially benefited. These were places in which industry and traffic were historically most concentrated, where access to open space was least, and where housing and other infrastructure were older and often poorly maintained.

Despite progress over the years, persistent inequalities remain when it comes to environmental risks, including air pollution, toxic waste, children’s exposure to lead, and even threats from climate change. Repeated national and local studies since the late 1970s have shown that lower-income communities and communities of color remain disproportionately burdened by air and water pollution, while also having less access to greenspace or even reliable environmental enforcement. The Flint, Michigan, water crisis is a painful example.

These realities are seen right here in Massachusetts, where research shows that lower-income communities and communities of color are many times more likely to play host to noxious or polluting facilities or activities, from landfills to heavy truck and marine traffic to power plants. These are the same areas that suffer from higher rates of environmentally induced ailments like asthma, elevated blood lead levels in children, and cardiovascular diseases in older adults.

This is not only unethical, but costly to all of us. The families that bear the largest environmental burdens are also the ones that use the most expensive forms of health care. Low-income children with asthma get much of their care from the emergency room, which is much more expensive than routine care. This is a massive drain not only on families, but on hospitals, insurers, and ultimately the taxpayer.

There are larger social costs as well. Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism, which often forces parents to miss work and increases the child’s risk of failure in school. Asthma is first and foremost an environmental health disease, and it is very predictably associated with air quality, especially air pollution from cars, trucks, and industry.

Asthmatic children are not the only ones at heightened risk. Researchers have shown that a significant number of deaths of older adults with chronic diseases are predicted by air quality. And while asthma and many other diseases can be managed by medication, it would be more affordable and far more ethical to prevent them in the first place.

Reducing environmental protections will no doubt lessen the burden on polluters and those who are responsible for enforcing regulations. Sadly, the burden will shift to those least able to afford it: children, the elderly, and people with existing illnesses such as asthma, as well as low income communities and communities of color.

There are ways to make our voices heard, even before the next election. Those concerned about these issues can let the EPA and the Trump administration know that it is not in our interest to pass the burden from polluters and government regulators to vulnerable families. We can also ask our Senators and Members of Congress to stand up for environmental protection – and with that, the protection of our most vulnerable communities.

We should all recall – and inform others – that the creation of the EPA was a matter of public health, and that massive inequities remain. Protecting our environment means protecting ourselves, and especially those among us who are most vulnerable. These priorities should be at the forefront when evaluating whether an environmental program is “burdensome.”


Marcos Luna, PhD, is a professor of geography and coordinator of the geo-information sciences graduate program at Salem State University.


Recommended for you