Lead in water, racism, and that suppressed bus line: the many faces of environmental injustice

Institutional Communication Service

The covid-19 pandemic has marked the last two years of our lives. During this time, social and environmental inequity issues surfaced, especially while researching and implementing possible solutions. How did covid highlight the presence of structural inequities? We talked about this with Marta Fadda, post-doctoral researcher and lecturer of the Biomedical Ethics course of the Master in Medicine of USI Faculty of Biomedical Sciences. 


Dr Fadda, first of all, what does environmental justice mean?

Starting from the premise that the environment is an element of equity and social justice, environmental justice pertains to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies regardless of ethnicity, colour, background, or income. 

In other words, everyone has the right to live in a safe and healthy environment, regardless of the background or group with which we identify. Thus, we speak of environmental injustice when vulnerable people or communities (e.g., because of poverty) are disproportionately exposed, compared to other people or communities, to environmental risks or harms that result from industrial, governmental, or commercial operations or policies. But we also speak of environmental injustice when environmental laws, regulations, policies, and programmes are implemented without the involvement of the communities that may be affected (negatively) by these measures.


In the last couple of years, inequalities have become more evident. How do we notice that something is wrong?

It is very simple: we have to look at the sociodemographics of the communities most affected by pollution. Think of the case of the city of Flint, Michigan, where for eighteen months, the population was exposed to toxic levels of lead through their tap water. Flint is one of the poorest cities in the United States, where the majority of the residents are black. How often do we hear about factories with a high potential to pollute the air that have been deliberately built in the poorest city neighbourhoods? Scientific studies are unanimous in stating that those who reside in districts with the highest pollution levels are the poorest people, with the lowest education levels and the highest unemployment levels. And these disparities have emerged quite clearly with the COVID-19 pandemic. The people most likely to become severely ill with COVID-19 have suffered for the longest time from the impact of pollution and environmental injustice: a true chain of injustice, in short.


With all the means available today, why do you think it is still possible to live under such conditions?

Unfortunately, at the origin of many forms of environmental injustice, structural forms of injustice are firmly stitched to our political, economic, and social fabric. These forms of injustice occur when the interests of a group of individuals (usually poor people or those belonging to ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious minorities) are ignored by a politically, economically and socially stronger majority. People still experience such disadvantages because not all of us begin our journey from the same starting line, and our paths are not the same, but rather, some are full of obstacles to overcome. Often this disadvantage is not corrected with the proper timing and measures, and the barriers are not removed. Take the example of Jessica, who was born in a heavily polluted suburb to poor parents suffering from various diseases that they struggle to treat due to high costs and lack of appropriate facilities nearby. Jessica left her parents' home to move to another cheap house where she had to deal with bacteria due to humidity and toxic substances on the walls, which the owner did not want to take care of since it was not required by law. Jessica did not have access to proper education. The only job she found was as a cashier in a small supermarket where the law allows smoking and where she would earn minimum wage and free access to all the snacks she wanted, which she turned into her main meals. By the time Jessica discovered she was pregnant, she had already been exposed to pollution, secondhand smoke, bacteria, high-salt and high-sugar foods, and verbal and physical abuse from supermarket shoppers. Jessica is now at risk of losing her job and becoming even poorer and more vulnerable because her pregnancy is at risk, and her doctor has put her on bed rest. Still, the system does not protect her financially in this case. Her baby is at risk of being born with medical conditions and never reaching its potential because of the cramped opportunities and many barriers her mother has encountered. Jessica's case shows how the political, economic, and social conditions in which we are born and grow up have a very strong bearing on our lives and play an essential role in enacting various forms of injustice, often despite all of our efforts.


How do we combat the different forms of structural injustice?

To make the necessary adjustments, we need to rethink our political, economic and social structures and how institutional decisions can reinforce pre-existing structural injustices or introduce new ones. For example, think about the consequences of eliminating a public transportation line that connects a poor neighbourhood with the business district where many of their residents are employed. Some people might have to quit their jobs to save money because of the high commuting costs or additional childcare costs. This increases the marginalisation of the people who live in this neighbourhood, even more, the risk of exploitation and violence, exclusion from political decisions, and diminishing their presence among the voices of the various districts of the city, thus making them even more "invisible".

Last year, at a conference I attended on the experience of older people during the first phase of the pandemic, I remember a lady taking the floor and saying with annoyance that she had heard all too often the expression, "we are all in the same boat." "No!" she continued, "We are not all in the same boat! We are all in the same storm, but some are sailing aboard a yacht, while others are trying to get by on a small raft and with only one paddle." This metaphor suggests that the first task is to acknowledge these forms of injustice and give a voice to those who experience them and usually do not have the opportunity to express themselves to tell of their lives and experiences. By performing this task, research contributes to a more equitable and just world. 




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