Environmental Racism Explored In An Interactive Web Series


People of color and low-income groups often get the losing end of the bargain when it comes to concerns about the environment. Compared to other groups, they are more likely to live near roads or power plants, in houses with lead, insect, or other problems, and personal care goods containing dangerous chemicals.

Environmental Racism in Greater Boston, a new online resource created by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers, provides a multidimensional and accessible story about inequities in environmental exposures from the regional to the individual level, with interactive visualizations.

As per Gary Adamkiewicz, the associate professor of environmental health and exposure inequalities, who pioneered the research, “The series demonstrates that environmental racism is not a one-off occurrence,” he stated. “These stories are all over the place.”

The series’ impetus, according to Adamkiewicz, was to highlight environmental racism at a time when disparities and racism were centered in the United States. “I thought it would be a one-of-a-kind contribution we could make—to tell a story about how environmental racism has changed environmental exposures for Boston residents,” he added.

To put the series together, Adamkiewicz collaborated with Tamarra James-Todd, Lisa Frueh, a research assistant at the NIEHS Center, and Mark and Catherine Winkler, Associate Professors of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology. Frueh was the website’s main architect, compiling content and creating the narrative, which discusses a wide range of research, including some from Adamkiewicz, a housing and health expert, and James-Todd, an expert on personal care product chemical exposure. Frueh also reached out to various additional sources, including city archivists and urban studies experts.

“Lisa did an outstanding job of translating our scientific currency of journal articles into a visually bright and very clear narrative that might help a layperson grasp what we’re talking about,” James-Todd said.

Gary Adamkiewicz is a member of the Adamkiewicz family.

Gary Adamkiewicz is a member of the Adamkiewicz family.

Tamarra James-Todd Lisa Frueh Tamarra James-Todd

Lisa Frueh putting the pieces together

The story arc of the series begins with examining racial residential segregation in the Greater Boston area. It has touching topics such as redlining, a practice used from the 1930s to the 1960s in which people living in certain areas—primarily people of color, working-class people, and immigrants—were denied federally-backed housing loans based on maps that are color-coded, with red sections rated as “hazardous” for awarding loans based on color-coded maps with red marks. The series also covers restrictive covenants, which made it illegal to sell or lease property to nonwhites, as well as other factors that contributed to racial segregation, such as suburbanization and “white flight” from cities. According to the narrative, the cumulative effects of these policies are still felt in the present day, as Greater Boston remains greatly segregated by race and class.

The series discusses differences in air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, closeness to pollution sources, green space, and urban heat at the neighborhood level. According to the narrative, people of low income and color are more likely to live near pollution sources like highways, landfills, and bus yards, partly because of residential segregation and partly because they have fewer resources to fight such construction.

The series also shows how low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be exposed to indoor air pollution sources in their homes. This includes gas stoves, volatile organic compounds (from products like air fresheners), secondhand smoke, lead, bugs, and mildew. For example, a 2014 study co-authored by Harvard Chan School’s Ichiro Kawachi and S.V. Subramanian discovered that Hispanic and Asian households were nearly three times more likely than non-Hispanic white households to report cockroaches in their homes. Also, houses with primary caregivers with a high school diploma were five times less likely to report mice and other pests in their homes than those without diplomas.

The final section of the series focuses on personal care products, such as makeup, hair and body products, and nail and menstrual care products. It emphasizes that their use is influenced by access, affordability, cultural preferences, and where people work. Compared to white women, women of color also tend to use more skin lighteners or hair straighteners in an environment where Eurocentric beauty ideals are promoted, resulting in higher exposure to harmful chemicals. For example, according to a 2021 literature review co-authored by James-Todd, Black and Hispanic women have higher urinary concentrations of several types of endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonly used in personal care products than white women. Long-term health issues such as altered sexual development, breast and prostate cancer, neurological and learning difficulties, obesity, and even type 2 diabetes have all been proven to contribute to these conditions.

The information is given in modules that can be read separately, but the series can also be seen as a single continuous story, according to Frueh. 

“To me, the biggest win of the project is being able to link the understanding of structural forces and environmental racism to human behavior,” Frueh said.

The series will be valuable for the general public and students from elementary school through graduate school, according to Frueh, Adamkiewicz, and James-Todd. 

The Harvard Chan community will be a significant audience. 

“Our students are really curious in how racism intersects with the field of public health that they are about to enter,” Adamkiewicz said. 

“They’re much ahead of the curve on these problems and are quite passionate about them.”

Read More
Related Articles