The recent signing of the Executive Order to create the White House Office of Environmental Justice is a significant step towards mitigating the long history of environmental racism in this country and complements the Administration’s current efforts to advance health equity. Legislation to achieve environmental justice has the potential to bring health and healing to those most in need and deserves our immediate attention and resource allocation.
Throughout our nation’s history, black and brown as well as low-income communities have been impacted disproportionately by countless environmental pollutants and toxins in their homes, communities, and workplaces. Consider Cancer Alley. Due to the enduring exposure to environmental toxins, in recent years, the United Nations issued a clarion call to end the longstanding environmental racism that has plagued this 85-mile-long stretch of land running along the Mississippi River and between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. For decades, residents in Cancer Alley have been exposed to a variety of harmful toxic emissions and pollutants coming from oil refineries and petrochemical plants. African American have been the hardest hit.
As a nurse with experience in oncology and public health, the term “Cancer Alley” is very disturbing to me. However, I realize that this description sadly captures the disproportionately high cancer rates among individuals residing in this geographic region. In fact, experts for the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that those residing in the area named St. John the Baptist Parish had the highest cancer risk in the United States as much as seven times the national average. During Spring 2023, Michael Regan, the Chief of the Environmental Protection Agency visited Cancer Alley to assure residents that more will be done to reduce the amount of environmental emissions that are poisoning their communities.
Environmental justice advocates have long called for more action and investments in ensuring environmental justice for our most vulnerable communities. They continue to use local data and their lived experiences to spark meaningful change. Increasingly across this country, advocates are organizing and demanding that local and federal governments do more to ensure equitable access to clean air, fresh water, and healthier communities. A lack of equitable access to these basic needs is often considered a denial of basic human rights.
Healthy People 2030, the nation’s road map for better health, has intensified its focus on environmental health as well and is moving to realize the “Promote healthier environments to improve health” goal within the next decade.
While these and other efforts are laudable, the urgency to ensure environmental justice is long overdue and cannot come quick enough for those residing in “Cancer Alley” and elsewhere. Investing in environmental justice now is critical to building a healthier nation, addressing the anticipated changes in climate, and advancing health equity. Our ability to move swiftly to address all forms of environmental injustices will benefit our nation as a whole and generations to come. To do so, environmental justice must remain a national priority.