Environmental injustice refers to situations where some people are negatively or disproportionately affected by human impacts on the environment.
Substantial evidence demonstrates that negative human impacts on the environment disproportionately affect marginalized, minority, and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups (e.g. Chowkwanyun, 2023; Martinez-Alier et al., 2016; Timmons Roberts, Pellow & Mohai, 2018).
For example, often poorer people are priced-out of suburbs with greenspaces, and will be relegated to areas alongside environmental hazards such as landfills and industrial facilities.
But environmental injustice extends beyond mere exposure to hazards. It often includes a lack of access to natural resources and being locked out of decision-making processes that could deliver environmental justice (see the section at the end of this article for classifications of the types of environmental justice).
Environmental Injustice Examples
1. Lack of Clean Water Access
Lack of access to clean water is one of the hot-button environmental injustice concerns of current times.
Oftentimes, clean water is distributed to wealthier and urban areas more quickly and more efficiently than non-urban and often marginalized communities. There are some obvious reasons for this: population dense areas tend to be served first because these are the regions with large numbers of people.
Nevertheless, we have multiple instances where nations fail to provide basic clean water access to marginalized groups. In Canada, for example there continues to be a crisis of lack of clean drinking water in remote Indigenous communities, who have had standing boil water advisories for many years.
Case Study: Flint, Michigan
The Flint Water Crisis, which began in 2014, reflects a situation where a predominantly African American community was affected by polluted water supply, with minimal response from the government. The crisis began when te city of Flint, Michigan switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to cut costs. The Flint River was notorious for its pollution and the water was not properly treated. Over 100,000 residents were potentially exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. Lead exposure can result in behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and lower IQ. Even after the crisis was exposed, government officials were slow to respond, leaving them open to accusations of racism, given that the town was predominantly African American.
2. Petrochemical Pollutants
Oftentimes, people living near industrial areas face poorer quality air, which can contribute to health issues.
For example, factories that release petrochemical pollutants into the atmosphere may cause people in nearby areas to develop illnesses.
Oftentimes, the people who live near petrochemical pollutants fit into two categories. The first is workers who work in the factories – in other words, lower-paid blue-collar laborers and their families. The second is poorer families who live in these less desirable areas because rent is lower.
Case Study: Cancer Alley, Louisiana
“Cancer Alley” is an 85-mile stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Louisiana that hosts around 150 oil refineries and petrochemical plants and higher than average instances of some cancers. These industries release large quantities of air pollutants and toxic substances, resulting in elevated cancer risk and other health problems among local communities. Predominantly African-American communities, who have been historically marginalized, live in these areas, pointing to clear environmental racial injustice.
3. Electronic Waste Dumping
Developed countries often export their electronic waste to developing countries, where regulations are lax.
Workers, including children, dismantle these products manually, often without proper protective equipment, exposing themselves to hazardous substances like lead, mercury, and cadmium.
Such exposures can cause miscarriages, cancers, and learning disabilities.
The solutions to this injustice include greater focus on recycling and regeneration of batteries and consumer electronics (based on the circular economy concept); and safer disposal practice.
Case Study: Agbogbloshie, Ghana
According to a 2013 report, up to 215,000 people may be affected by heavy metals contamination in Agbogbloshie (Ghana), increasing their risk of cancer and respiratory diseases. Despite international regulations intended to control e-waste exportation, illegal e-waste dumping continues.
4. Uranium Mining
Uranium mining is essential for the operation of nuclear power plants which, while not emitting carbon emissions, can cause damage in communities where the uranium is mined. Often, these are remote indigenous communities.
The extraction processes create solid waste byproducts called tailings and liquid waste byproducts called raffinates. Both are radioactive and hazardous.
We see that these byproducts have had negative impacts on the nearby communities, as demonstrated in the Navajo Nation case study below.
Case Study: Navajo Nation
From the late 1940s through the 1980s, the Navajo Nation, a Native American territory spanning parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, was a significant source of uranium for the U.S. nuclear program. Abandoned uranium mines and mining waste have contaminated the local environment, leading to high rates of cancer, kidney disease, and other health problems in the Navajo population.
5. Air Pollution
Air pollution has been a serious problem since the industrial age, where cities in England especially were exposed to extreme pollution from coal emissions.
Major sources of air pollution include:
- Inefficient and highly-polluting vehicles
- Inefficient combustion of household fuels (e.g. burning coal in the home)
- Coal-fired power plants
- Agriculture (e.g. crop burning)
- Waste burning
Governments and private industry have actively worked to improve efficiency of power generating sources (e.g. improved engine quality of cars), which has lowered pollution levels in many western nations.
However, many cities – especially megacities in Asia – continue to be exposed to highly polluted air. Exposure to thus polluted air increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer.
People who are already ill (such as those with chronic asthma), children, and the elderly tend to be more likely to experience these dramatic negative health effects.
Case Study: Air Pollution in Delhi, India
Delhi, India, is frequently ranked as one of the world’s most polluted cities, with air pollution levels often reaching hazardous levels. Delhi’s air pollution arises from various sources, including vehicle emissions (where older vehicles used by the masses tend to be higher-polluting), poorly regulated industrial plants, crop burning in neighboring states, and construction dust.
6. Oil Extraction
Over the years, oil companies have spilled millions of gallons of crude oil and unlined waste pits into the water and soil, contaminating the ecosystem.
Local communities, depending largely on their natural environment for subsistence, have experienced negative health impacts due to contamination, including cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses.
Case Study: Oil Extraction in the Ecuadorian Amazon
In a notable case, Chevron was found guilty and fined billions of dollars for causing massive pollution during its operations in Ecuador, but legal and enforcement complexities have meant that affected communities have seen little in terms of actual compensation or cleanup efforts.
7. Mountain Top Removal Mining
Mountain top removal is a method of coal mining that involves blasting off the tops of mountains, creating enormous amounts of waste that often ends up in streams and rivers.
Negative impacts include contamination of groundwater (which can get into drinking water supplies for local communities), contaminated streams, and potential air pollution (comprising both chemicals and dust).
A systematic review conducted by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) in the USA Animal and in vitro experimental studies within this review indicated demonstrated health impacts on local wildlife. This may, in turn, also affect local human populations.
Case Study: Mountain Top Removal in Appalachia, United States
In the Appalachian region of the United States, mountaintop removal mining has devastated mountain ecosystems, polluted water supplies, and caused health issues among local communities. Despite these impacts, the economically disadvantaged populations living in these areas rarely see the economic benefits of mining activities.
8. Pipeline Spills
Pipeline spills pose significant environmental, economic, and safety risks.
Besides the effects on local biodiversity, pipeline spills also contaminate water supplies for humans and can negatively affect local crop yields.
The aging infrastructure of many pipelines, some of which date back to the mid-20th century, is also a significant concern, as it increased the likelihood of more and more spills over time.
The economic impact of pipeline spills can be considerable, potentially causing property damage, decreasing tourism, and incurring extensive cleanup costs.
Unfortunately, the communities impacted often don’t benefit from the pipelines running through their regions, and yet they face the health and environmental burdens.
Case Study: Pipeline Spills in Nigeria’s Niger Delta
In the infamous Bodo oil spills of 2008 and 2009, two major spills from Shell’s pipelines devastated the local environment in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. A protracted legal battle resulted in Shell accepting responsibility and agreeing to pay compensation, but cleanup efforts and compensation payouts have been slow.
9. Climate Change
Climate change is one of the most significant environmental injustices, with a global scale and far-reaching impacts. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global temperature has increased by approximately 1.1°C compared to pre-industrial levels due to human activities.
The countries contributing most to the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change are often not those that are most severely affected by the consequences.
For instance, island nations and developing countries are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels (projected to rise by 30-110cm by 2100), extreme weather events, and changes in agricultural patterns, yet they contribute a relatively small share of the emissions causing these problems.
Moreover, within countries, marginalized communities are often hit hardest by the impacts of climate change, such as heat waves and floods, due to factors like inadequate housing, less access to healthcare, and financial insecurity.
Case Study: Pacific Island Nations
Small island nations in the Pacific like Kiribati and Tuvalu face existential threats from climate change due to rising sea levels. Despite contributing very little to the global carbon footprint, these countries are on the front lines of climate change impacts, highlighting the grave injustice associated with the phenomenon.
Large-scale deforestation, often driven by commercial agriculture, mining, and logging, is another example of environmental injustice.
Forests are crucial for sequestering carbon dioxide, preserving biodiversity, and providing sustenance to local communities.
However, each year, 7.3 million hectares of forest are lost due to commercial agriculture, mining, and logging.
Indigenous people and local communities often bear the brunt of deforestation. They not only lose their homes, but also their traditional ways of life which are intertwined with the forest ecosystems. Meanwhile, the economic benefits of deforestation typically accrue to large corporations and distant consumers.
Case Study: The Amazon Rainforest, Brazil
In the Amazon rainforest, illegal logging and land clearances for agriculture, often at the expense of indigenous tribes, have caused vast deforestation. These activities contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss, while disrupting the livelihoods and cultures of local communities. Illegal logging and land clearances for agriculture have resulted in the loss of around 17% of the Amazon rainforest in the past 50 years.
11. Pesticide Exposure
Pesticides are widely used in agriculture to control pests, but they can have severe impacts on human health and the environment.
This issue came to the fore in 1985, when The World Health Organization estimated that there were 3 million cases of pesticide poisoning each year, resulting in an excess of 250,000 deaths. Since, many countries have introduced stronger bans on pesticide uses.
Farmworkers and people living near agricultural areas are particularly at risk of exposure to harmful pesticides. They may face both acute and chronic health effects, ranging from respiratory irritation and nausea to more severe conditions like cancer and neurological disorders.
Case Study: Pesticide Exposure in California’s Central Valley
In California’s Central Valley, where a significant amount of the United States’ agricultural production occurs, farmworkers and residents face high levels of exposure to dangerous pesticides. These communities, often made up of low-income and immigrant families, bear a disproportionate burden of the health risks associated with pesticide exposure.
12. Coal Ash Contamination
Coal ash, a byproduct of coal power plants, is a toxic substance that can contaminate water, soil, and air.
In the US, coal power plants generate about 130 million tons of coal ash annually, all of which needs to be safely handled and stored.
Communities living near coal power plants or coal ash disposal sites are often exposed to this contamination, which can lead to health issues such as cancer, neurological disorders, and respiratory diseases. These communities are often disadvantaged and have limited options for relocation.
Case Study: Kingston Coal Ash Spill, Tennessee
The 2008 coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, is one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history. The spill released 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into the surrounding area, contaminating local rivers and land. The clean-up took over a decade and cost billions of dollars, with ongoing health effects for the local community.
13. Plastic Waste
According to a study published in Science Advances, only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, dumps, or the environment.
The production, use, and disposal of plastic has significant environmental impacts. Plastic pollution can contaminate soil and water and harm wildlife.
Moreover, plastic waste often ends up in countries with lax environmental regulations and marginalized communities.
Case Study: Plastic Waste in Southeast Asia
In recent years, many wealthy nations have exported their plastic waste to countries in Southeast Asia. Here, the waste is often improperly managed and can end up in rivers and oceans or is burned, releasing toxic fumes. This places a disproportionate burden on these countries and their citizens.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a method of extracting natural gas that has significant environmental impacts.
The process can contaminate groundwater with harmful chemicals and induce seismic activity. Moreover, communities living near fracking operations often suffer from noise and air pollution.
Yale notes that more than 17.6 million people in the USA live within a mile of a fracked oil or gas well, meaning this environmental justice issue can have huge and widespread negative impacts on everyday victims, who are often unaware of the effects.
Case Study: Fracking in Pennsylvania, USA
In Pennsylvania, where fracking operations are widespread, there have been numerous reports of contaminated drinking water, as well as health issues among local residents, highlighting the environmental injustices associated with this practice. One study found children in the region are 2-3 more likely to develop childhood leukemia.
15. Upstream Pollution
Upstream pollution refers to pollution that originates from a source and then travels downstream, affecting areas and people far from the source.
Communities located downstream often suffer from the impacts of this pollution, including contaminated drinking water and damage to local ecosystems. These communities often lack the resources to mitigate the impacts of upstream pollution.
The Canadian Government has presented research finding that 1.8 billion people will lack access to clean water by 2025.
Case Study: Upstream Pollution in the Ganges River, India
The Ganges River, one of the most heavily populated river basins in the world, suffers from severe pollution. Industrial pollutants, untreated sewage, and religious offerings are all dumped upstream, contaminating the river downstream and causing health issues among communities that rely on the river for drinking water, bathing, and agriculture.
Types of Environmental Justice
Environmental injustice can take several forms. Here are some of the primary types:
- Distributive Injustice: This refers to the unequal distribution of environmental goods (like clean air, water, and access to natural resources) and bads (such as pollution, waste disposal sites, and other environmental hazards). Typically, marginalized communities bear a disproportionate share of environmental bads while having limited access to environmental goods.
- Procedural Injustice: This occurs when certain groups, often those most affected by environmental decisions, are not adequately included in decision-making processes and not adequately informed of the issues. This could involve decisions related to the siting of a polluting facility, the formulation of environmental policies, or the distribution of environmental resources.
- Injustice of Recognition: This type refers to the failure to recognize certain groups or their rights in relation to environmental matters. For instance, the traditional environmental knowledge and land rights of indigenous peoples are often ignored or undervalued.
- Intergenerational Injustice: This form of injustice considers future generations, focusing on how current actions and policies might unfairly burden future generations with environmental problems. An example is the current generation’s contribution to climate change, which will disproportionately affect future generations.
The forms of environmental injustice can overlap and intersect in complex ways. Understanding these distinctions helps in identifying and addressing the various facets of environmental injustice.
Environmental injustice spans the world and is a key contributor to the broader concept of social injustice. It occurs whenever people are negatively impacted by human-induced environmental harms not of their own making. Sadly, it often negatively impacts poorer and marginalized communities, whereas wealthier people and those with social and cultural capital often have the means to move away from areas negatively effected, and have enhanced means for self-advocacy.
Allen, M.R., Dube, O.P., Solecki, W., Aragón-Durand, F., Cramer, W., Humphreys, S., Kainuma, M., Kala, J., Mahowald, N., Mulugetta, Y., Perez, R., Wairiu, M., & Zickfeld, K. (2018). Framing and Context. In V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, & T. Waterfield (Eds.), Global Warming of 1.5°C: An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty (pp. 49-92). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Butler, R. A. (2021, November 23). Amazon Destruction. Mongabay. Retrieved from https://rainforests.mongabay.com/amazon/amazon_destruction.html
Chowkwanyun, M. (2023). Environmental Justice: Where It Has Been, and Where It Might Be Going. Annual Review of Public Health, 44, 93-111.
Food and Agriculture Organization. (2020). State of the World’s Forests 2020. Retrieved from https://www.fao.org/state-of-forests/en/
Geneva Environment Network. (2023, January 16). The Growing Environmental Risks of E-Waste. Retrieved from https://www.genevaenvironmentnetwork.org/resources/updates/the-growing-environmental-risks-of-e-waste/
Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7), e1700782. doi:10.1126/sciadv.1700782
Government of Canada. (2023, March 17). Access to water in developing countries. Retrieved June 21, 2023, from https://www.international.gc.ca/world-monde/issues_development-enjeux_developpement/environmental_protection-protection_environnement/water-eau.aspx
Hurdle, J. (2022, November 17). Fracking and Health: As Evidence Mounts, New Concerns. Yale E360. https://e360.yale.edu/features/fracking-gas-chemicals-health-pennsylvania
Jeyaratnam, J. (1990). Acute pesticide poisoning: a major global health problem. World health statistics quarterly 1990; 43 (3): 139-144.
Luo, C. X. (2021, November 14). The Water Crisis in Canada’s First Nations Communities: Examining the progress towards eliminating long-term drinking water advisories in Canada [Story Map]. Retrieved from https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/52a5610cca604175b8fb35bccf165f96
Martinez-Alier, J., Temper, L., Del Bene, D., & Scheidel, A. (2016). Is there a global environmental justice movement?. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 43(3), 731-755.
National Toxicology Program. (2023, March 7). Mountaintop Removal Mining: Impacts on Health in the Surrounding Community. Retrieved from https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/whatwestudy/assessments/noncancer/completed/mining
Timmons Roberts, J., Pellow, D., & Mohai, P. (2018). Environmental justice. Environment and society: Concepts and challenges, 233-255.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2023, June 14). Coal Ash Basics. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/coalash/coal-ash-basics
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]