Feb. 2, 2022 — When it comes to exposure to environmental risks, people of color and low-income groups tend to have the short end of the stick. They are more likely than other groups to live near highways or power stations; living in a home with lead, pests or other problems; and being exposed to dangerous chemicals in personal care products.
A new web resource series, Environmental Racism in Greater Boston, produced by Harvard experts TH Chan School of Public Health, tells a multifaceted and accessible story, including interactive data visualizations, about disparities in exposures from the regional to the individual level.
While the series focuses on Boston, the issues it highlights occur across the United States, according to Gary Adamkiewicz, associate professor of environmental health and exposure disparities, who led the project. “The series emphasizes that environmental racism is not an isolated story,” he said. “These stories are everywhere.”
Adamkiewicz, who leads the community engagement hub at the Harvard Chan-NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) Center for Environmental Health, said the impetus behind the series was to highlight environmental racism at a time when issues surrounding disparities and racism were front and center. and center in the United States “I thought this would be a unique contribution that we could make – to really tell a story about how environmental racism has shaped environmental exposures for Boston-area residents,” he said. -he declares.
Adamkiewicz partnered with Tamarra James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Associate Professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology, and Lisa Frueh, Research Assistant at the NIEHS Center, to bring the series to fruition. Frueh was the main architect of the website, compiling the content and writing the narrative, which draws on a wide range of research, including some from Adamkiewicz, a housing and health expert, and James-Todd, who studies the personal care chemical exposures. some products. Frueh also connected to other sources ranging from city archivists to urban studies experts.
“Lisa did a wonderful job of taking our scientific currency from journal articles and translating them into a visually dynamic and very clear narrative that might help a layman understand what we’re talking about,” James-Todd said.
Tamarra James Todd
Join the dots
The series’ story begins with an exploration of racial residential segregation in the Greater Boston area, touching on topics such as redlining, a common practice from the 1930s through the 1960s, in which people living in certain areas – where mostly people of color, working class people and immigrants lived – were denied federally backed home loans based on color-coded maps with red sections classified as “dangerous” to the granting of loans. The series also depicts covenants, which prohibited the sale or rental of properties to non-whites, and other processes that promoted racial segregation, such as suburbanization and “white flight” from cities. The account notes that the cumulative effects of these policies and practices are still being felt today, as Greater Boston remains sharply segregated by race and class.
The series goes on to describe disparities at the neighborhood level – in air, water, soil pollution, proximity to pollution sources, green spaces and urban heat. The story explains that people of color and low-income populations are more likely to live near sources of pollution such as highways, landfills and bus stations, partly because of residential segregation and partly because these populations have fewer resources to oppose such a construction.
The series also documents how communities of color and lower-income groups tend to be more exposed to sources of indoor air pollution in households – for example, gas stoves, volatile organic compounds (from produce such as air fresheners), second-hand smoke, lead, pests, and mold. For example, a 2014 analysis of Los Angeles households co-authored by Ichiro Kawachi and SV Subramanian of Harvard Chan School found that Hispanic and Asian households were nearly three times more likely to report cockroaches in their homes than non-Hispanic whites, and that households whose primary caregivers had at least a high school diploma were nearly five times less likely to report mice and cockroaches in their homes than those without a high school diploma .
The final section of the series focuses on personal care products, including makeup, hair products, body products such as lotions and soaps, and nail care and menstrual care products, emphasizing that the use of these products is not simply a matter of individual choice. , but also has to do with access, affordability, cultural preferences and where people work. In an environment where Eurocentric beauty standards are promoted, women of color are more likely than white women to use products such as skin lighteners or hair straighteners, and therefore tend to be more exposed to chemicals. dangerous. A 2021 literature review co-authored by James-Todd, for example, found that black and Hispanic women have higher urinary concentrations than white women of several types of endocrine disruptors commonly used in personal care products. . These chemicals can cause long-term health issues such as impaired sexual development, breast and prostate cancer, neurological and learning disabilities, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.
The information is presented in modules that can be read on their own, but the series can also be viewed as one cohesive story, Frueh said. “Being able to link understanding structural forces and environmental racism to individual behavior, for me, is the biggest win of the project,” she said.
Frueh, Adamkiewicz and James-Todd believe the series will be useful for the general public and for students from elementary school through college. A key audience will be the Harvard Chan community. “Our students are very interested in how racism intersects with the world of public health they are about to enter,” Adamkiewicz said. “They are ahead of the game and passionate about these issues.”
– Karen Feldscher
Image of Boston map from Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC): University of Richmond Inequality Mapping Project
photo by Lisa Frueh courtesy of Kevin Bugbee