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Archive for the ‘environmental justice’ Category

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The ultimate cause of social disparity in preventative health behavior may be rooted in environmental harm

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

In a fascinating new article in PLOS One (open access), Daniel Nettle asks why we see social gradients in preventative health behaviors:

People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to smoke more, exercise less, have poorer diets, comply less well with therapy, use medical services less, adopt fewer safety measures, ignore health advice more, and be less health-conscious overall, than their more affluent peers. Some of these behaviors can simply be put down to financial constraints, as healthy diets, for example, cost more than unhealthy ones, but socioeconomic gradients are found even where the health behaviors in question would cost nothing, ruling out income differences as the explanation.

As we often assume with environmental or nutritional issues, maybe simply helping to better educate people is all that’s needed? Probably not, as Nettle points out, and with an interesting twist:

Socioeconomic gradients in health behavior are not easily abolished by providing more information. Informational health campaigns tend to lead to greater voluntary behavior change in people of higher socio-economic position, and thus can actually increase socioeconomic inequalities in health, even whilst improving health overall. Thus, we are struck with what we might call the exacerbatory dynamic of poverty: the people in society who face the greatest structural adversity, far from mitigating this by their lifestyles, behave in such ways as to make it worse, even when they are provided with the opportunity to do otherwise.

What are some of the possible explanations for this pattern, and are they sufficient?

Underlying socioeconomic differences in health behavior are differences in attitudinal and psychological variables. People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to be more pessimistic, have stronger beliefs in the influence of chance on health, and give a greater weighting to present over future outcomes, than people of higher socioeconomic position. These explanations seem clear.

However, they immediately raise the deeper question: why should pessimism, belief in chance, and short time perspective be found more in people of low socioeconomic position than those of high socioeconomic position? These deeper questions are at the level which behavioral ecologists call ultimate, as opposed to proximate causation

To develop more of an ultimate explanation, Nettle hypothesized that lower socioeconomic groups are subject to greater hazard or environmental harm or even simply the perception of living a more hazardous life.  This, in turn, discourages healthy behavior.

To test this hypothesis, he developed a mathematical/statistical model predicting the probability of dying in a given year, which is a combination of extrinsic risks that people cannot control as well as intrinsic risks that they can control through modified health behavior.   Thus, people choosing to take the time to engage healthier opportunities reduce their mortality risk.  Now there’s a tradeoff, however, because the more time people choose to undertake healthy behavior, the less time is left over for leisure activities and other life events.

Overall survival is therefore a combination of all of these factors, which can easily be modeled by assuming a range of values for time spent on health vs. other activities to see what kinds of mortality outcomes arise.

Here are the interesting results he found…

(more…)

Posted in behavior, environmental justice, health, nature and culture, pollutants, population, race and class, the good life | 4 Comments »

Yellow Dirt: An environmental justice story about radioactive waste and the Navajo

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Laura Miller at Salon reviews a new book out this week by Judy Pasternak titled, “Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed.” A few excerpts from Miller’s analysis:

In the summer of 1979, an earthen dam over the town of Church Rock, Utah, broke, flooding the arroyo below and then the bed of the Rio Puerco (an intermittent stream) on the southern border of the Navajo Nation. It was a small flood, but a dangerous one. It burned the feet of a boy who stepped into it, and caused sheep and crops along the banks to drop dead. That’s because the pond it came from had been used by a nearby uranium mine to store the tailings (residue) of its excavations — the water kept the radioactive dust from blowing away. The 93 million gallons of contaminated water that poured into the Rio Puerco remains the largest accidental release of radioactive material in U.S. history, bigger than the notorious Three Mile Island reactor meltdown that occurred 14 weeks later.

The Church Rock flood is only one incident among many in the “slow-motion disaster” investigative journalist Judy Pasternak comprehensively recounts in her chilling new book, “Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed.” Based on a prize-winning four-part series she wrote for the Los Angeles Times, “Yellow Dirt” begins during World War II, when secretive government surveyors first appeared on the remote reservation, supposedly looking for deposits of an ore called vanadium, used to strengthen steel needed for the war effort. Uranium was the real prize, and after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ramping up of the Cold War, the American demand for the radioactive substance boomed.

The Navajo Nation and the area around it contained some of the richest deposits of uranium ore in the world, and certainly the most conveniently located. For about a decade, various corporations and government agencies reaped 1.4 million tons of uranium ore from the Monument Valley region alone; Pasternak makes a single mine there, known as Monument No. 2, her primary focus. The mining operations were relatively rudimentary, and by ordination of the tribal government, worked almost entirely by Navajo men. Even the cheapest and most elementary safety practices, such as wetting down blast areas to keep the miners from breathing toxic dust, were neglected in the rush to satisfy the Atomic Energy Commission’s insatiable appetite for uranium.

By the 1960s, the need tapered off, and the mining companies blithely abandoned the sites, leaving piles of radioactive tailings lying around for Navajo kids to play on and their parents to scavenge for conveniently sized rocks with which to build houses, ovens and cisterns. The dust and gravel made seemingly excellent concrete for floors. Monument No. 2, once a mesa, had been nearly leveled, its uranium-laced innards exposed to the open air, reduced to what Pasternak characterizes as a “radioactive pit.” Old quarries filled up with rain- and groundwater, new “lakes” from which local residents watered their herds and gratefully drank.

The next boom, unsurprisingly, was in cancer rates (previously so low among the Navajo that they were thought to be miraculously immune to the disease), and in a birth defect, christened “Navajo neuropathy,” that caused children’s fingers to fuse together and curl into claws. Still, it took decades for the cause to be fully recognized and even longer for it to be addressed; it wasn’t until 2008 and under the lashing of Rep. Henry Waxman, that the federal government made serious efforts to clean up the mine sites, purify water supplies and relocate families living in houses built from radioactive materials.

Read the rest of the review here.

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Photo Credit: Christopher Isherwood

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Posted in energy, environmental justice, land use, race and class, toxics | No Comments »

City dwellers of the future: Urban heat island warming may be as large as doubling CO2

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I remember driving on a freeway in Phoenix after midnight in 1990.  The temperature was a cool 102 degrees F after breaking the all-time heat record of 126 F that day.  Deserts are good at cooling off at night.  But with all of the built environment in Phoenix storing heat from the day, the sidewalks, roads, and even swimming pools felt like they were being heated.

We all have probably experienced urban heat islands—the mass of dark asphalt and concrete absorbing solar radiation and radiating it back to space as heat.  The lack of water exacerbates the situation because there is little-to-no evaporative cooling.  Waste heat from cars, machines, air conditioners, and even human bodies also heat up the air.  And the warmer it gets, the stronger the tendency to crank up the air conditioners, generating even more waste heat.

The problem is potentially large in areas like the Middle East, India, parts of Africa, and the American Southwest, where rapid urbanization in warm, dry environments has the potential to make some urban areas much warmer at night than surrounding rural areas.

In a forthcoming article in Geophysical Research Letters1, Mark McCarthy and colleagues at the Met Office, Hadley Centre, UK used a climate model that examines what climate might look like in a doubled CO2 world and calculates the added warming caused by urbanization and wasted heat.

Their results were eye-opening:

  • Urban regions in places like the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, and India may experience night time warming by as much as 3-5 degrees C above and beyond that caused by doubled CO2 alone.
  • The number of hot nights per year (defined as temperatures in the 99th percentile of nonurban areas) increase in the following cities:
    • London: 1-2 hot nights now vs. up to 10 hot nights in 2050
    • Sydney: 1-2 hot nights now vs. up to 15 hot nights in 2050
    • Delhi: 5-10 hot nights now vs. up to 30 hot nights in 2050
    • Beijing: 3-6 hot nights now vs. up to 50 hot nights in 2050
    • Los Angeles: 8-12 hot nights now vs. up to 40 hot nights in 2050
    • Tehran: 20 hot nights now vs. up to 60 hot nights in 2050
    • Sao Paulo: <5 hot nights now vs. up to 80 hot nights in 2050
    • Lagos (Nigeria): <5 hot nights now vs. up to 150 hot nights in 2050

As mentioned in an earlier post, we only need to remember Chicago in 1995 to recall the deadly impact that heat waves can have on urban people.  And as we saw in that unfortunate example, the victims were disproportionately the elderly and African American.

Although we may not be able to mitigate this warming, basic adaptation steps should be set into motion, including re-thinking urban design, making cities more resilient to hot environments, developing better energy and technology solutions (including cooling), installing green roofs, and putting into place emergency disaster plans and social safety nets for vulnerable populations.

1Mark McCarthy, Martin Best, and Richard Betts (2010). Climate change in cities due to global warming and urban effects Geophysical Research Letters : 10.1029/2010GL042845

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Photo Credit:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/dustinphillips/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in climate adaptation, climate change science, energy, environmental justice, health, land use, population, race and class, sustainability, technology, urban | 3 Comments »

Sustainable food: Who’s it for? Uniting ecological sustainability and social justice

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

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Think of all the reasons why people advocate sustainable food, and the following things probably come to mind:

  • Eat organic—to reduce pesticides and nutrient pollution.
  • Eat locally—to reducing carbon emissions.
  • Eat free-range animal products—to reduce nutrient pollution, energy use, and animal cruelty.
  • Eat vegetarian or vegan— to reduce carbon footprints further and eliminate animal cruelty altogether.
  • Eat hormone and antibiotic-free animal products— to improve human health.

How about this one?

  • Make sure farm workers who grow all of this food and other poor people have access to cheap, healthy, sustainable food.

Not so much.

And that’s probably why Caitlin Donohue wrote the story, “Out of reach: How the sustainable local food movement neglects poor workers and eaters” in today’s San Francisco Bay Guardian Online.

There’s a lot more that can be written on this topic, and there are a growing number of success stories, including

The introduction to Donohue’s article frames the cultural disconnect:

On a sunny afternoon in Civic Center Plaza, a remarkable bounty covered a buffet table: coconut quinoa, organic mushroom tabouli, homemade vegan desserts, and an assortment of other yummy treats. The food and event were meant to raise awareness about public school lunches, although it was hard to imagine these dishes, brought by well-heeled food advocates, sitting under the fluorescent lights of a San Francisco public school cafeteria.

The spread was for the Slow Food USA Labor Day “eat-in,” a public potluck meant to publicize the proposed reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, national legislation that regulates the food in public schools. The crowd was in a festive, light-hearted mood. There was a full program of speeches by sustainability experts and a plant-your-own-vegetable-seeds table set up in one corner of the plaza.

A bedraggled couple who appeared homeless made their way through the jovial crowd and started scooping up the food in a way that suggested it had been a long time since their last roasted local lamb shish kebob.

Their presence shouldn’t have been a surprise; most events involving free trips down a food table are geared toward a different demographic in this park, which borders the Tenderloin.

In a flash, an event volunteer was on the case, nervous in an endearingly liberal manner. “Sir,” she began. “This food is for the Child Nutrition Act.” And then she paused, searching for what to say next. I imagined her thinking: “Sir, this food is to raise awareness about the availability of sustainable food to the lower classes, not to be eaten by them,” or, “Sir, this good, healthy, local food is not for you.”

Continue reading here

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Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/77043400@N00/ / CC BY-ND 2.0

Posted in environmental justice, food and agriculture, organic, race and class | 1 Comment »

Will women bear the brunt of climate change impacts?

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

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Lydia DePillis has an interesting article over at The New Republic based on a new report from the United Nations.

Is climate change gender-neutral? Not according to the U.N. Population Fund, which earlier today released a report arguing that women suffer disproportionately from the impacts of global warming. Especially in developing countries, they can’t flee changes like desertification and sea-level rise as easily as young men, who aren’t as tied to children and households. They’re often caught up in civil conflicts ignited by scarce resources. And they’re more likely to fall victim to diseases caused by wetter weather patterns.

But on the flipside, the report argues, women are also in the best position to help mitigate both the causes and effects of rising temperatures—which is why policies to empower women, like targeted microloans and reproductive healthcare, shouldn’t be treated as separate from climate policy.

…Think of it as Nick Kristof meets Tom Friedman: keeping “women’s issues” separate from “climate issues” is a huge missed opportunity.

I love this conclusion.  It’s one of the things that environmental studies (ES) programs in higher education need to focus on—better connections to groups not traditionally affiliated with ES, such as Gender and Women’s Studies, Africana Studies, Psychology, Religion, visual and performing arts, etc.  For major environmental challenges like climate warming, everyone needs to be part of this conversation.

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Photo credit:   http://www.flickr.com/photos/oxfam/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in behavior, climate adaptation, environmental justice, gender, higher education | No Comments »

Are rural kids overweight because of a lack of access to healthy food?

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

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Rural and urban areas have in common an increasing problem of grocery store consolidation and flight to suburbia, which has a more-profitable mix of cheap land for big box stores and greater densities of affluent consumers.

As the source of healthy foods goes away, the resulting communities are often described as “food deserts.”  When we think of food insecurity in the world, we often think of famines in developing countries.  Unfortunately, food insecurity is also an issue here at home for America’s poor.  When grocery stores are far away, people may rely more on smaller grocery and convenience stores, thereby consuming more high-calorie junk foods and other processed foods.

In a recent issue1,2 of Rural Sociology (subscription required), Kai Schafft and colleagues examined populations across Pennsylvania where 50% of people lived farther than 10 miles from large grocery stores (8 miles is deemed an average trip to the store) and compared them to populations where people lived closer to big stores.

What did they find?

(more…)

Posted in environmental justice, food and agriculture, race and class | No Comments »

Chicago 1995: How social disparities lead to environmental disasters

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

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As I mentioned in the last post, heat waves have the potential to harm or kill a lot of people.  Who are the people most likely to suffer first? The experiences from the Chicago 1995 heat wave offer some insights for urban America.  Eric Klinenberg’s 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago is as relevant as ever to the current conversation about climate change.

Some excerpts from a U. Chicago Press interview with Klinenberg.

The heat made the city’s roads buckle. Train rails warped, causing long commuter and freight delays. City workers watered bridges to prevent them from locking when the plates expanded. Children riding in school buses became so dehydrated and nauseous that they had to be hosed down by the Fire Department. Hundreds of young people were hospitalized with heat-related illnesses. But the elderly, and especially the elderly who lived alone, were most vulnerable to the heat wave.

“It’s hot,” the mayor told the media. “But let’s not blow it out of proportion. . . . Every day people die of natural causes. You cannot claim that everybody who has died in the last eight or nine days dies of heat. Then everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat.” Many local journalists shared Daley’s skepticism, and before long the city was mired in a callous debate over whether the so-called heat deaths were—to use the term that recurred at the time—”really real.”

[T]he black/white mortality ratio was 1.5 to 1.

Another surprising fact that emerged is that Latinos, who represent about 25 percent of the city population and are disproportionately poor and sick, accounted for only 2 percent of the heat-related deaths…Chicago’s Latinos tend to live in neighborhoods with high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces. Most of the African American neighborhoods with high heat wave death rates had been abandoned—by employers, stores, and residents—in recent decades. The social ecology of abandonment, dispersion, and decay makes systems of social support exceedingly difficult to sustain.

The heat wave was a particle accelerator for the city:  It sped up and made visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive. Yes, the weather was extreme. But the deep sources of the tragedy were the everyday disasters that the city tolerates, takes for granted, or has officially forgotten.

Related Post: Say so long to your furnace and hello to a new air conditioner

photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/paraflyer/ / CC BY-ND 2.0

Posted in climate adaptation, environmental justice, race and class, social science, urban | 3 Comments »

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