More Evidence of Environmental Injustice: Redlined Areas Have Higher Levels of Pollution

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Photo credit: Washington Post.

By Stephen Lester.

A study published this spring by researchers at Columbia University found that areas redlined by federal loan programs since the late 1930s ended up with more drilling wells, polluting industries, major highways, and shipping ports than non-redlined areas. This research adds to the growing body of evidence showing how communities of color are disproportionately exposed to pollution that results in increased poor health. 

“Our study adds to the evidence that structural racism in federal policy is associated with the disproportionate siting of oil and gas wells in marginalized neighborhoods,” said lead author Joan Casey, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia Mailman School in a press statement. “These exposure disparities have implications for community environmental health, as the presence of active and inactive wells contribute to ongoing air pollution.”

According to an article on this study in the Washington Post, starting in the late 1930s, the federally sponsored “Home Owners’ Loan Corp (HOLC) marked areas across the United States as unworthy of loans because of an ‘infiltration of foreign born, Negro, or lower grade population’ and bordered them in red. This made it harder for home buyers of color to get mortgages; the corporation awarded A grades for solidly White areas and D’s for largely non-White areas that lenders were advised to shun.”

The researchers found that historically redlined neighborhoods that scored lowest in racially discriminatory maps drawn by the government’s loan corporation had twice the density of oil and gas wells than comparable neighborhoods that scored highest. “These wells likely contribute to disproportionate pollution and related health problems in redlined neighborhoods.”

According to the researchers’ press statement, oil and gas wells expose residents to air and water pollution, noise, and other sources of stress that can increase the risk of many types of disease: cardiovascular disease, impaired lung function, anxiety, depression, preterm birth, and impaired fetal growth. An estimated 17 million Americans live within one mile of at least one active oil or gas well.

This study provides a clear example of how institutional racism can define public policy and how it can impact people’s lives and their health for decades. 

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