February 2, 2022. When it comes to environmental hazards, people with low incomes and people of color tend to be the most vulnerable. They are more likely to live near highways or power stations, to live in homes with lead, pest or other problems, and to be exposed in personal care products to hazardous chemicals.
Harvard T.H. experts have created a new series of web resources called Environmental Racism In Greater Boston. The Chan School of Public Health tells a multifaceted story with interactive data visualizations about environmental exposures at the individual and regional levels.
The series is centered on Boston, but the problems it highlights are common across the U.S. according to Gary Adamkiewicz (associate professor of environmental health & exposure disparities), who led the project. He stated that the series demonstrates that environmental racism does not exist as an isolated story. These stories are all around.
Adamkiewicz is the director of the Harvard Chan-NIEHS Center for Environmental Health’s community engagement core. He said that the series was created to highlight environmental racism in a time where disparities and racism are at the forefront of American society. He stated that he believed this would be an important contribution that we could make to tell a story about the impact of environmental racism on environmental exposures in the Boston region.
Adamkiewicz was a partner with Tamarra James–Todd, Mark & Catherine Winkler Associate Professor in Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology, as well as Lisa Frueh (a research assistant at NIEHS Center), to bring the series to life. Frueh was the main architect and writer of the website. He compiled the content and wrote the narrative. This drew on a wide range research, including some from Adamkiewicz (an expert in housing and health) and James-Todd (who studies chemical exposures to personal care products). Frueh also contacted other sources, including urban studies experts and city archivists.
James-Todd said Lisa did an amazing job translating our scientific currency of journal article articles into a visually vivid and very clear narrative that could be used to help lay people understand what we were talking about.
Connecting the dots
The series story arc opens with an exploration of racial residential segregation in Greater Boston. It then moves on to topics like redlining, which is a practice that was used from the 1930s through 1960s. Redlining allowed people to be denied federally-backed loans for housing based upon color-coded maps with red sections considered too dangerous for lending loans. The series also discusses restrictive covenants that prohibited non-whites from selling or leasing properties. It also addresses other processes that contributed to racial segregation, such as suburbanization and white flight. The narrative explains that these policies and practices have had a cumulative effect on Greater Boston’s racial segregation.
The series continues to highlight disparities at the neighborhood level in air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution and proximity to pollution sources. The narrative explains that low-income and people of color are more likely to live near polluting sources such as highways and landfills. This could be due to residential segregation, and also because they have less resources to oppose such construction.
The series also shows how low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to indoor air pollutants in their homes. This includes gas stoves, volatile organic chemicals (from products like air fresheners), secondhand smoking, lead, pests and mold. For example, 2014 analysisHarvard Chan Schools Ichiro Kawachi, and S.V. Subramanian found that Hispanic households were almost three times more likely to report cockroaches than non-Hispanic white households. Additionally, households with primary caregivers who have at least a highschool diploma were nearly five to five times less likely report mice and cockroaches to their homes than those without a highschool diploma.
The final section of the series is about personal care products. This includes makeup, hair products and body products like soaps and lotions. It also discusses products for nail care and menstrual health. Women of color are more likely to use hair straighteners and skin lighteners in an environment that promotes Eurocentric beauty standards than women of white. A 2021 Literature reviewJames-Todd’s co-author, for instance, found that Black women and Hispanics have higher urinary concentrations of several types endocrine-disrupting substances commonly used in personal-care products. These chemicals can cause long-term health problems like altered sexual development, breast cancer, prostate cancer, neurological and learning difficulties, obesity, and type II diabetes.
The information is presented in modules, which can be read by themselves, but can also be viewed as a whole, according to Frueh. She said that the greatest win of the project was being able to link the understanding of structural forces, environmental racism, and individual behavior.
James-Todd and Frueh think the series will be beneficial for both the general public, as well students from grade school to graduate school. The Harvard Chan community will be a key audience. Adamkiewicz said that our students are keen to learn how racism intersects in the world of public healthcare they will be entering. These students are ahead of the curve, and passionate about these issues.
Image of Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) map of Boston: University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality Project
Photo of Lisa Frueh, courtesy Kevin Bugbee