Public Health Solutions to Advance Environmental Justice

By Ryan Fitzpatrick

Before attending law school I lived in Mid City New Orleans, volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.  The neighborhood kids would frequently come over after school to hang out, talk, or get some help on their homework.  Being involved in their lives, I was struck by how often they would fall ill, forced to stay home from school and fall behind on their studies, often with respiratory problems.  Parents would take their children to the ER, but only for emergencies.  Living in a neighborhood that saw 6-8 foot high flood waters during Katrina (and the subsequent mold problems that followed in its wake), while adjacent to a major interstate, certainly didn’t help these kids in their quest to stay healthy.

Since joining the Office of Environmental Justice as a summer law clerk in June, I have been working extensively with the HUD-DOT-EPA Partnership for Sustainable Communities, and its Team-EJ work group, to more closely align agency efforts in sustainability and environmental justice.  The Partnership represents the Administration’s recognition of the interconnectivity of housing, transportation, and the environment when it comes to developing sustainable communities. The Partnership through Team EJ has worked with communities to integrate the concept of environmental justice into sustainability programs, and is now integrating public health as well.  This makes sense. People living in communities bearing a disproportionate impact of pollution often face disproportionate health burdens, an injustice that is exacerbated when they also lack adequate access to health services.

The Partnership’s recognition of the importance of reducing health disparities in conjunction with community stakeholders to achieve environmental justice comes at an exciting time in public health. The Affordable Care Act has provided $11 billion to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) from 2010-2015. HRSA is using this money to develop new and expanded federally qualified health centers, and the creation of a comprehensive National Prevention Strategy. Access to healthcare is crucial for achieving environmental justice in low-income and minority communities.

Working together, federal agencies with related missions can bring rapid and lasting change to overburdened and underserved communities across the country, like the Mid City community I was a part of.  The Partnership’s expansion into public health, and its model for interagency collaboration can go a long way toward directing critical health resources into the environmental justice communities that lack them. You can click here to find more about how the partnership is working to expand access to affordable care, and here for more resources to expand your communities’ access to basic healthcares services.

About the Author: Ryan Fitzpatrick is a third year student at The George Washington University law school, and a law clerk at the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice.  Prior to entering law school, Ryan served a year as a volunteer construction supervisor with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, through the AmeriCorps National Direct program.

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