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Environmental Justice

, by Jongeun Rhee* (OEEB) and Alexandra Harris* (ITEB)

Environmental justice (EJ) 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.1 Environmental health disparities exist when communities exposed to environmental hazards and social inequities experience an increased disease burden compared to wealthier, less polluted communities.2 Environmental racism refers to any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.3

One example of environmental racism in the U.S. relates to discriminatory housing policies,4 which historically created and perpetuated residential segregation, concentrating racial and ethnic minoritized groups into economically and politically disempowered areas.5 Community disinvestment lowers commercial and residential property values and encourages industrial acquisition and development of nearby lands.6 This, in turn, results in racial and ethnic minoritized groups unwillingly living near industrial sites (e.g., oil and gas extraction), highways, landfills, incinerators, and bus depots,4,5,6 and exposure to high levels of air pollutants and toxic chemicals that can harm human health and increase cancer risk.5,6,7 These undesirable attributes also lower property values, restricting residents' financial ability to relocate to neighborhoods with a healthier environment, ultimately perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty, health disparities, and racism.


  1. Pursue research efforts on the disproportionate burden of environmental exposures in EJ communities*. Learn about NCI-NIEHS efforts on Cohorts for Environmental Exposures and Cancer Risks (CEECR). *EJ communities refer to communities experiencing environmental injustice.
  2. Investigate the root causes of observed environmental health disparities in a study population. Consider structural racism and neighborhood social factors in environmental health risk/impact assessment. Learn about the EPA Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool and the CDC Environmental Justice Index.
  3. Engage with and learn from EJ communities. Participatory research offers a tool to produce community-informed environmental health data that can contribute to public health interventions and structural changes that benefit EJ communities. Consider partnering with community activists and organizations promoting EJ to lend perspective and expertise to your research. Check out the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and Community Voices on EJ.

 *Authors contributed equally

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  1. The Principles of Environmental Justice (EJ) (pdf, 150 KB). The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991, in Washington D.C., and drafted these 17 principles.
  2. Addressing Racism As a Public Health Issue Through the Lens of Environmental Health Disparities and Environmental Justice (NIEHS Workshop).
  3. White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council
  4. EHP Environmental Racism Collection: Exposure and Health Inequities in Black Americans. Environmental Health Perspectives


We appreciate valuable feedback from Dr. MyDzung T. Chu, Director, ADAPT (Addressing Disparities in Asian Populations through Translational research), Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute, and Assistant Professor, Center for Community-Engaged Medicine, Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies, Tufts Medical Center; Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, Associate Professor of Environmental Health and Exposure Disparities, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Dr. Rena Jones, Investigator, OEEB, DCEG, NCI.  


  1. Environmental Justice. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  2. Environmental Health Disparities and Environmental Justice. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
  3. Bullard RD. The threat of environmental racism. Natural Resources & Environment 1993.
  4. Rothstein R. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. Liveright Publishing 2017.
  5. Lord BD, Harris AR, Ambs S. The impact of social and environmental factors on cancer biology in Black Americans. Cancer Causes Control 2023.
  6. Gee GC, Payne-Sturges DC. Environmental health disparities: A framework integrating psychosocial and environmental concepts. Environ Health Perspect 2004.
  7. Josey KP, Delaney SW, Wu X, et al. Air pollution and mortality at the intersection of race and social class. N Engl J Med 2023.
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