Backyard Talk

Unequal Infant Mortality Rate Caused by Environmental Injustice

By Monica Lee, Communications & Development Intern
Children are oftentimes more vulnerable to the negative effects of environmental injustice. This is because their bodies have not been fully developed to face the harsh health impacts from their environment. Nonetheless, according to the National Vital Statistics Reports done by the CDC, in 2018, infants of a black mother were more than twice as likely to die compared to infants of a white, Asian, or Hispanic mother. This is an issue raised by inequality that has always been around, and yet does not receive enough attention.
There are many reasons that lead to this infant mortality gap based on race. For example, access to health care, access to adequate food, and other socioeconomic factors create differences in children’s health. Most importantly, however, the environment in which the child grows up in plays the greatest role in affecting the child’s health. Environmental injustice is the most significant factor that affects this infant mortality rate gap.
The major causes of infant mortality in the US include asthma, birth defects, neurodevelopmental disorders, and preterm birth. These illnesses are all effects of the surrounding environment, either directly affecting the child or indirectly through the mother.
Families with lower socioeconomic status tend to be disproportionately exposed to areas with more serious air pollution. Thus, children growing up in these communities have a higher chance of getting asthma. Specifically, even among adults, asthma rates are higher in blacks than in whites. This is a clear case of environmental injustice that leads to the infant mortality rate gap.
Besides asthma, the other causes of infant mortality can also be attributed to environmental injustice. Communities with higher exposures to toxic chemicals lead to more infant mortality deaths. Mothers exposed to toxic chemicals may face health effects, thereby causing birth defects leading to infant mortality. At the same time, infants directly exposed to these toxic chemicals face a greater consequence as their immune system have not been fully developed. Families with lower socioeconomic status tend to reside in these communities with higher exposures to toxic chemicals, thereby causing the infant mortality rate gap.
Many of the causes of infant mortality are created by the environment, and environmental injustice plays a huge role in affecting specific communities with lower socioeconomic status. Thus, there is a large racial gap of infant mortality rates as children’s health are more likely to be affected by the negative effects, such as air pollution and toxic chemicals. This issue requires more attention in order for the inequality to be eliminated completely. As a result of environmental injustice, many infant lives are lost without the chance to enjoy their full life.

Backyard Talk

Which came first, people or pollution? Researchers try to answer important environmental justice question

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Image Credit: Ricardo Levins Morales

Researchers have known for decades that polluting facilities and waste sites are more likely to be located in low-income communities and communities of color, which makes these areas extra vulnerable to the environmental health impacts of pollution. However, we lack a clear understanding of how these disparities come to exist. Do the demographics in areas surrounding hazardous waste sites shift over time, or are polluting facilities placed disproportionately in low-income communities?

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published two papers that attempt to answer this question. Their first paper is a review of previous studies on environmental injustice. According to Mohai and Saha, the study authors, previous research racial and socioeconomic environmental hazards have lead to contradictory findings. However, they also noted a major gap in the research. Most of the studies have been what they call “snapshot studies,” looking only at hazardous waste facilities and the populations that surround them at a single point in time, rather than looking at demographic change over longer time spans.

They used these longitudinal methods in their second paper, which was unique in a second way. Previous national-level environmental justice studies have used a method of assessment called the ‘unit-hazard coincidence’ approach. This means that demographics are analyzed within geographic units, like a census tract or zip code area, which also contains a hazardous waste site. “Not taken into account by this approach is the precise location of the hazard within the host unit,” Mohai and Saha write. Under this approach, effects on neighboring areas are ignored, which Mohai and Saha believe may lead to underestimating the degree of racial and socioeconomic disparities. Their study used a more precise distance-based method, rather than just looking at effects within arbitrary boundaries.

By analyzing a database of commercial hazardous waste facilities sited between 1966 and 1995, the researchers found strong evidence supporting the ‘disparate-siting’ hypothesis – that polluting facilities are disproportionately placed in low-income communities and communities of color. The researchers concluded that racial discrimination and sociopolitical factors are strongly at play in the siting of hazardous waste facilities. In other words, industries and governments are likely to take advantage of vulnerable areas lacking economic resources and political power, choosing the “path of least resistance” for deciding where our waste goes.

Mohai and Saha recommend more research to strengthen our understanding of these processes. Overall, their work highlights the political and social factors that proliferate patterns of environmental injustices, and asks us to take a closer look at how our government policies and industry practices reinforce racial discrimination.

Read the studies here and here.