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Unjust environments: Racial inequalities in environmental exposures and their implications for health


Some of us grow up surrounded by trees, good schools, and opportunity. Others play in the shadow of heavy industry or near abandoned brownfields, surrounded by a high concentration of poverty. Unequal – and unjust – environments shape our opportunities for good health and too often add to the hardships of socially disadvantaged groups. Research on environmental justice considers how a long history of racial discrimination in the U.S. has insured that people of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with less desirable and less healthful environments.

In this dissertation I contribute to scholarship on environmental justice by investigating

cumulative environmental hazards, chemical body burden, and the health implications of climate change from an environmental justice perspective. Chapter 1 describes my approach and how it is situated within prior research on environmental inequalities, differential vulnerability to the health impacts of pollution by socioeconomic status, and racial/ethnic disparities in health. Chapter 2 investigates social inequalities in residential proximity to cumulative environmental and social stressors to health across the state of California. It innovates upon previous work by incorporating measures of social vulnerability and geographically comparing the degree to which multiple environmental hazards are inequitably distributed in a framework that can be used to identify opportunities to reduce inequality and track progress towards environmental justice goals.

In Chapter 3 I analyze biomonitoring data to examine socio-demographic differences in chemical body burden during pregnancy, considering the number and concentrations of over 80 toxic compounds detected in blood and urine by race, ethnicity, country of origin, and educational attainment. Biomonitoring data gives an indication of possible differences in exposures to multiple toxic chemicals that can reveal inequities with implications for maternal and child health. Chapter 4 considers the potential health implications of climate change from an environmental justice perspective. Using a recent heat wave in Texas, I investigate whether extremely hot temperatures are associated with an elevated risk of preterm birth and examine the possibility that climate change could worsen existing racial and ethnic disparities in reproductive health. The research and policy implications of my findings are discussed in Chapter 5, where I stress the need to incorporate differential vulnerability and cumulative exposures into environmental regulatory policy, exercise precaution in the face of uncertainty, and focus on remedying the upstream drivers of social inequality that lead to unjust environments.

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