Violence: The Connection to Environmental Health and Justice

written by Elise Miller, MEd

Violent events rock families and communities in the U.S. daily. But last week was particularly wrenching as we learned first of two incidents of extrajudicial shootings of black men by police—one in Louisiana, the other in Minnesota—followed by the killing of five police officers by an individual sniper at an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Texas. The complexities and causes of each case may be unique, but at the core is an abiding racism that continues to permeate our country.

Racism is perpetuated in multiple and insidious ways, such as the widening income gap, toxic stress, poor nutrition, lack of access to healthcare and to nature. Another factor intimately interconnected with these, but often overlooked, is exposure to pollutants and other toxic chemicals. We know that being exposed to heavy metals and neurotoxic chemicals can lead to cognitive deficits and developmental delays that in turn have been linked to juvenile delinquency and violent behavior. We know that many kids of color and low-income families are more likely to live in housing stock with lead paint and pipes and close to polluting industries. We know that during pregnancy poorer women are disproportionately exposed to harmful chemicals associated with learning and developmental disorders. We know that working-class parents often have to take the lowest-paying jobs, many of which require regular contact with contaminants linked to cognitive and behavioral problems. We know for most of these families the only food they can afford comes pre-packaged and contains toxic chemicals that can impact neurodevelopment.

image by Ingrid Taylar
image by Ingrid Taylar

Though we are well aware of these concerns based on the best available science, our collective response perpetually fails to address this component of the many upstream drivers of health. If the implementation of a comprehensive, prevention-oriented intervention strategy to help mitigate violence doesn’t include reducing environmental pollutants, then we are missing a significant opportunity to improve public health and safety. We can’t have justice if we don’t have environmental justice. We can’t have healthy communities if we don’t have environmental health. Of course reducing exposures to pollution won’t stop racism, but it will give kids a far better chance to reach their full potential and live more meaningful lives, rather than being impeded from the get go and more easily caught in a downward spiral of fear and violence.

Our hearts go out to the latest victims of these hateful actions. CHE joins millions around the country to call for an end to all violence—and to all conditions that give rise to violence.

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