health disparities

Storytelling to Confront Injustice

By Dale Slongwhite

I first heard the term “environmental justice” in October 2009 when my daughter Karen invited me to attend the first annual Environmental Justice Summit at Barry University’s Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law in Orlando, an event she was helping to organize. I did not even know what the term “environmental justice” meant. I attended the conference as a show of support for her efforts to make a positive change in the world.

But something happened halfway through the day that converted me from a supportive mother to an individual willingly drawn into the middle of the fray.


Click to Hear Linda Lee’s Story

An African American woman, a former farmworker on the many now-closed Lake Apopka farms, spoke about her experience crawling on her knees in the scorching Florida sun, down seemingly endless rows hacking at lettuce with a machete for twelve hours a day, six days a week, for decades. She spoke about women gathering their skirts around another woman as a make-shift bathroom since there were none in the field; about gobbling down a sandwich after hauling a crate of corn to the truck; about crop duster planes dropping pesticides without asking workers to leave the fields; about high incidences in her neighborhood of lupus, eczema, and cancer. And about 18 funerals in one weekend.


Farmworkers pack vegetables on a large vehicle called a mule train.

She started working summers and weekends at the age of seven, standing atop the mule train twelve feet off the ground pushing crates down the chute for other women to pack vegetables. She was the same age as me — I pictured my summer days at age seven — lounging on the beach in Connecticut, riding my bike around the block, engrossed in Writer magazine dreaming of becoming a published author.

The stories of these women, these farmworkers, haunted me until I could no longer sit on the sidelines. But what could I do for a whole community ten minutes from my house whose residents now suffered life-threatening illnesses? I’m not a lawyer, so I couldn’t fight a legal battle. I’m not a doctor, so I couldn’t offer healthcare. I’m not a scientist, environmentalist, or lobbyist. I’m just a writer.

Just a writer! I could craft stories about the harmful effects of pesticide exposure, about heat stroke, and about labor laws we all take for granted that do not apply to farmworkers. I could write so that others who live in their own worlds away from environmental injustices could be made aware of what it takes to harvest our food.


Click to Hear Mary Ann Robinson's Story

Click to Hear Mary Ann Robinson’s Story

I interviewed 11 African American former farmworkers, who told stories of pregnant women bending over in the fields harvesting or planting right up until the time of delivery. Many of these babies were born with low birth weights, physical or mental disabilities, or stillborn. I heard stories of snakes in the fields and trees. I heard stories of indebtedness.

I learned that these same individuals went home to neighborhoods that housed toxic dumps trucked in from other parts of the country; that race is the biggest factor when it comes to the location of municipal landfills and incinerators, abandoned toxic waste dumps, and Superfund sites.

Click to Hear Mary Tinsley's Story

Click to Hear Mary Tinsley’s Story

I could tell people about Mary who sees all sorts of doctors for her lupus, which she believes was caused by exposure to chemicals and pesticides in the fields. She has sympathy for people working in the fields.

I hope these stories move you. When you sit down tonight for your evening meal and experience the crunch of a carrot, the succulence of an orange, or the sweetness of a raspberry, remember the farmworkers who brought you that bountiful blessing.

We all have different talents, but we also have the same obligation to confront injustices, wherever we encounter them. Hopefully you will spread the message, and maybe there are even some who can do more than just tell stories. Maybe you can take action — before more farmworkers unnecessarily suffer another day just so that we all can eat.

About the Author: Dale Slongwhite is a professional writer and has been coaching writers for over 10 years. Her recent book, Fed Up: The High Cost of Cheap Food, dives deeper into many of the issues surrounding Lake Apopka.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Battling Pollution Balances Health Disparities and Brings Economic Opportunity

Pollution isn’t just a barrier to good health; it’s a barrier to good jobs. Too often, low-income families, the inner-city, and communities of color are overburdened by air and water pollution. President Obama has called closing gaps of opportunity a defining challenge of our time. Meeting that challenge means ensuring clean air, clean water, and safe, healthy work environments. It is our duty, on behalf of the people we serve, to provide equal protection for all. That’s what environmental justice is all about.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Mocha Moms President Kuae Mattox and Board Members of Mocha Moms, Inc.

Photo of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Mocha Moms President Kuae Mattox and Board Members of Mocha Moms, Inc.


Mocha Moms, Inc. understands that principle, and launched a National Community Service Initiative in 2009 entitled “Closing the Gap in Minority Health, Prosperity and Achievement.” This wide-reaching initiative promotes education and community service throughout 100 chapters in local communities around the country. Mocha Moms, Inc. and the EPA share a commitment to address environmental health risks and expand the conversation within underserved communities. We are thrilled to announce the continuation of the partnership between the EPA and Mocha Moms, Inc. More

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations.

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EPA Study Shows Poverty Is a Risk Factor for Heart Disease

Cross posted from Science category.

By Ann Brown

In 2008, lightning started a peat bog wildfire in eastern North Carolina. Dry peat is an organic material that makes a perfect fuel for fire. For weeks the fire smoldered, blanketing communities in 44 rural counties with toxic air pollutants that exceeded EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards at times. As a result, many people went to the emergency department with congestive heart failure, asthma and other health problems from smoke exposure as documented in an EPA study.

Untitled-1The wildfire provided a unique opportunity for researchers to evaluate the reasons behind the heart and respiratory problems caused from smoke exposure. They were interested in whether there are community characteristics than can be used to identify residents whose health might be at risk from wildfires or other sources of air pollution. What exactly did the communities along the Coastal Plain of North Carolina have in common?

Researchers analyzed daily rates of visits to the emergency departments during the fire event and community health factors such as access and quality of clinical care, health behaviors, socioeconomic factors and the characteristics of the physical environment. The findings, published in Environmental Health, indicate low socio-economic status alone can be used to determine if a community is at risk for congestive heart failure or other health problems observed. Low socio-economic status is a term used to describe a group of factors such as low income, inadequate education and safety concerns.

While the knowledge that people in poverty are at greater health risk from air pollution is not new, this study provides scientific evidence that a community’s socio-economic status can be used to identify those at greatest risk from air pollution. This is good news for the public health community and others interested in reaching people with heart or lung diseases who may be at risk of air pollution. This study and others being conducted across the country by epidemiologists are helping to find ways to address health problems in communities.

About the author: Ann Brown is the communications lead for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Sustainability for All

By Deeohn Ferris

Untitled-2In many of our communities, if sustainability is going to be sustainable, our nation’s green economy and the investments that flow from those policies must reflect the undeniable fact that all communities are not at the same starting point.  In far too many of our neighborhoods, people who are raising families and working hard to make ends meet face a combination of environmental, social and economic challenges that result in grave hardship.  If the race to sustainability is a race to the top, some of our communities can take the elevator.  Others only have stairs, and some of them have asthma too!

Regarding what’s going on locally and on-the-ground, equitable development is the central point from where the hard issues within sustainability must be dealt with up front.   The real on-ramp to sustainability means recognizing and addressing the inter-relationship of the challenges in our communities. Negative environmental impacts, disproportionate impacts, vacant properties, brownfields, health disparities, blight — these conditions are ubiquitous in neighborhoods where people of color and people with low incomes and less wealth live, work, learn, worship, and play.  Achieving equitable and sustainable development means thoroughly rebuilding our communities – not just the bricks and mortar – but really rebuilding the country’s social and economic fabric.

Untitled-2Thus, to make a fairer starting line for all in our country, we need to recognize opportunities to support the communities that have the greatest proportion of pollution and public health problems. For example, minimizing health disparities by deliberately providing fairer access for health care in low income and minority communities would save these residents billions of dollars in averted medical costs and gained productivity. Ameliorating such persistent inequities is critical for bringing about stability in communities—increasing fair access to housing choices, better schools, better jobs, sustained economic growth – and thus improving their overall ability to achieve community sustainability.

All across the country, dedicated folks are working to address these disparities.  But people of color and low-and-moderate income populations are still struggling for opportunity. Reversing this unfortunate trend necessitates a national transition to sustainability and the emerging green economy, which provides important new ways to tackle community revitalization as well as opportunities to do so in an equitable manner. Some examples of green economy priorities and tools that could address these disparities include:

  • Ensuring the right to a clean, safe environment for everyone.
  • Establishing inclusive decision making structures that provide resources and facilitate community engagement in planning and investments.
  • Making certain that decision-making is democratic, transparent and fair.
  • Distributing the economic and health benefits of energy conservation through green housing and retrofits.
  • Creating jobs that are safe, green and upwardly mobile.
  • Emphasizing workforce preparedness, development, and training.
  • Providing financial and other incentives that encourage entrepreneurship and local ownership of renewable energy and renewable energy technologies.
  • Guaranteeing that there are sufficient transportation options, including affordable public transit that gets people to jobs.
  • And ensuring the highest quality education and food security for all of our children.

Untitled-3Which neighborhoods are built and rebuilt and how they are built and rebuilt have far-reaching consequences in the race towards sustainability. Prioritizing historically disadvantaged and distressed communities to engage and benefit from sustainability outcomes is an investment in the future.  I believe everyone in our nation should have the same opportunity to flourish.  But achieving such a lofty goal requires community sustainability with conscious linkages to social and economic equity goals, green economy tools and environmental justice.

About the author: Deeohn Ferris is President of Sustainable Community Development Group, a not-for-profit national research and policy innovator dedicated to advancing sustainability and public health through equitable neighborhood development, smart growth and the green economy.  She is a former EPA enforcement lawyer, now a renowned provider of equitable development expertise and technical assistance that tackles sustainability in communities of color and low wealth neighborhoods.   Deeohn was on the ground floor of drafting the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 and the first Chair of NEJAC’s Enforcement Subcommittee.   

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Science Matters: Closing the Asthma Gap

To observe October as Children’s Health Month, we will periodically post Science Matters feature articles about EPA’s children’s health research here on the blog. Learn more about EPA’s efforts to protect children’s health by going to

Nearly 26 million Americans, including seven million children, are affected by asthma. But when emergency room doors burst open for someone with an asthma attack, chances are the patient will be a poor, minority child.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), minority children living in poor socioeconomic conditions are at greatest risk. For instance, 16% of African American children had asthma in 2010 compared to 8.2% of white children, and they are twice as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma attack and four times more likely to die than white children. The asthma rate among children living in poverty was 12.2% in 2010, compared to 8.2% among children living above the poverty line.

“Across America we see low-income and minority children and families at a disproportionately higher risk for asthma and respiratory illnesses. Air pollution and other challenges are having serious health effects, which compound economic challenges through medical bills and missed school and work days,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “As the mother of a child with asthma, I know what it means for our children to have clean and healthy air to breathe.”

Administrator Jackson made those remarks during the unveiling of the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities, a blueprint for how EPA and other federal agencies can team up to reduce asthma disparities.

A major part of that effort is the work conducted by EPA scientists and their partners exploring environmental causes and triggers of asthma, including how socioeconomic factors contribute to childhood asthma. The overall goal is to illuminate the underlying factors of asthma to support work on prevention and intervention strategies.

What increases the risk of developing asthma? While part of the answer certainly lies with genetics, as more than half of all children with asthma also have close relatives with the illness, the environment also plays a key role. Air pollutants, allergens, mold, and other environmental agents trigger asthma attacks.

EPA researchers and their partners are leading the effort to develop new scientific methods, models, and data for assessing how such triggers increase the risk for asthma and asthma attacks. The impact of this research has already contributed to current regulatory standards for two priority air pollutants regulated under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS): ozone and particulate matter. EPA’s asthma research has also been factored into health assessments for diesel emissions.

The next step is to learn ways to better protect those most at risk.

“Now we’re digging into the disparities side of the asthma problem,” said Martha Carraway, MD, a researcher at EPA. “Kids with poorly controlled asthma are more likely to be treated in the emergency room than kids with controlled asthma. So for public health reasons we need to understand how environmental factors, including air pollution, affect asthma control in vulnerable populations.”

To advance that work, EPA researchers and their partners took advantage of a 2008 lightning strike that occurred in Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. The 40,000-acre (16,000-hectare), smoldering peat fire sparked by the lightning sent thick, billowing clouds of smoke wafting into the air.

In collaboration with scientists at the University of North Carolina Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology, a team of EPA researchers led by David Diaz-Sanchez, PhD compared emergency room visits for asthma with air quality reports. Looking at the results geographically, they found that low income counties had significantly more visits than more affluent counties, even though air quality and exposure levels were the same.

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“EPA studies suggest that children and others living in low-income counties could be less resilient to air pollution, possibly because of social factors such as inadequate nutrition. For example, if you’re poor and you’re not eating well, your asthma may be more severe,” said Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, MPH, Executive Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network, a national multi-disciplinary organization whose mission is to protect developing children from environmental health hazards and promote a healthier environment. “Of course, other factors may also be involved, such as whether kids take medications correctly and whether they have access to good medical care.”

EPA’s research on asthma disparities can help guide newer and better interventions for reducing exposure to asthma triggers and limiting the impacts of the ailment, helping to close the gap for minority and poor children and improving the health of children everywhere.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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