Should Environmental Justice be Part of Family Therapy?

Posted on January 10, 2010. Filed under: Environmental, Family Therapy, Health, Pollution, Public Health | Tags: , , , , |

This post is an addendum to my “Is it ADHD or Expose to Toxins?”  I was reminded by a friend at the Adler Institute of Social Exclusion that exposure to pollution or toxins do not occur evenly throughout the population.  Poor people and ethnic minorities are more likely to be exposed to pollution and toxins.  Within the public health sphere, there is a term called Environmental Justice.  The EPA has a page devoted to Environmental Justice and the EPA defines it as:

Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. EPA has this goal for all communities and persons across this Nation. It will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

Environmental justice is an important piece of addressing health disparities.  I will discuss some of the key issues of environmental justice and then highlight what family therapists can do to address issues of environmental injustice.

Environmental justice is rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s as black leaders become concerned about the connection between their communities and environmental risks (Click HERE for a timeline).  Community leaders were concerned about what they termed environmental racism.  Environmental racism occurs when policies, regulations, and/or practices that put people of color or low income communities at risk for being exposed to toxins.  There are many historical examples but all we need to do is to look at Hurricane Katrina and Dickson, TN to see that issues of environmental injustice are still around.  Some other startling facts from a United Church of Christ 2007 report (they have done some remarkable work in this area):

  • More than 870,000 of the 1.9 million (46 percent) housing units for the poor, mostly minorities, sit within about a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency (p. 4).
  • More than 600,000 students in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California were attending nearly 1,200 public schools, with largely African Americans and other children of color, that are located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state­identified contaminated sites (p. 4).
  • Neighborhoods with a hazardous waste facility in Arizona, California and Nevada are majority Hispanic or Latino. Other states with very large disparities in Hispanic or Latino percentages include Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas and Utah (p. 58-59).
  • While Race and SocioEconomic Status are important variables in predicting the location of a hazardous waste site, Race appears to be more important (p. 62).  Indicating that hazardous waste sites are located in middle class and affluent Black neighborhoods.

While these issues are usually addressed by community organizations, family therapists should inquire about exposure to toxins to understand possible causes or contributors to psychological, behavior, or emotional problems.  These issues should be part of every intake form.  We might be “treating” ADHD when in fact someone has lead poisoning.  And while family therapists cannot change the SES circumstances of our clients, we can provide information on how their housing or community is connected to their health (read physical and mental).

In a previous post I highlighted some questions that family therapists can ask about toxins in the environment.  Here are some other things that family therapists can do:

  • Use the EPA’s website as a source of information about the communities that your clients live in.  Go to the EPA’s Where You Live website and click on the region where your clients reside.  This will give you information about the EPA’s work in your region.
  • Go the Environmental Justice Geographic Tool to see what issues are in the neighborhoods of your clients.  Once you get the region you will need to choose which features you would like to explore.  Here is a link to what Utica, NY looks like.  I chose all the regulated sites (Click on the +) and Schools under Places.
  • If you learn about a possible exposure (e.g., lead, mercury) have them contact their health care provider immediately OR their local Public Health Office. You can locate federally funded health care sites from here by clicking HERE.

I have just touched the surface of this issue.  There are some great resources out there for people wanting to learn more about Environmental Justice.  I will list some resources below and let me know if you have more.  Please leave a comment, concern, or story.  I will respond to all of them.  As always, take care.

John

OTHER RESOURCES

Democracy Now: Interview with Dr. Robert Bullard

Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University (EXCELLENT SITE.  This is really all you need to see what the current key issues are).

Interagency Working Group (11 federal agencies and several White House offices working to integrate environmental justice into its individual programs)

National Black Environmental Justice Network

Pollution Issues: Environmental Racism

Social Science Research Council: Toxic Soup Redux

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