American poor suffer more from environmental hazards

provided by Cornell University


t has long been known that Americans living in poverty are at a much higher risk than the more affluent for exposure to such health-threatening environmental hazards as air pollution and landfills. A new study by a Cornell University environmental psychologist, however, finds that the exposure of the poor to environmental risks is far greater and more intense than previously thought.

    “The poor are most likely to be exposed not only to the worst air quality, the most noise, the worst water, and to hazardous wastes and other toxins, but also of particular consequence, to lower-quality environments on a daily basis at home, in school, on the job, and in the neighborhood,” says Gary Evans, a professor of design and environmental analysis in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

    This grave “environmental injustice,” he concludes, is pervasive among the American poor, especially the nonwhite poor.

    Evans is an international expert on how the physical environment – in particular noise, crowding, inadequate housing and air pollution – can affect human health and well-being.

Poor risks

    “The unique thing about poverty is its confluence of risk – that is, the poor are exposed to a concentration of greater risks than others,” says Evans. He argues that the breadth, amount and degree of environmental risk to which the poor are exposed account for some of the health differences that have been observed between the affluent and the poor.

    Evans and his former graduate student, Elyse Kantrowitz, reviewed more than 140 scientific papers. In a recent issue of the Annual Reviews: Public Health (Vol. 23: pp. 303-31, 2002, available online at, they document the evidence that lower income is directly related to greater exposure to environmental risks. They also show that environmental exposures to toxins can have serious physical and psychological health consequences. Although the health consequences of exposure to one environmental risk factor, such as poor air, water or crowding, can be relatively small, the Cornell researchers suspect that the cumulative effect of multiple-risk exposures account for some of the socioeconomic-related differences in health that other researchers have documented between the poor and the more affluent.

    “The poor, and especially the nonwhite poor, bear a disproportionate burden of exposure to lower-quality, unhealthy environmental conditions in this country,” says Evans. And the more that researchers scrutinize environmental exposure and health data for racial and income inequalities, the stronger the evidence becomes that widespread and serious environmental injustices continue to occur throughout the country, he says.

    Even more disturbing, Evans and Kantrowitz write, is the fact that the environmental-risk exposure is likely to be even more hazardous in developing countries, which tend to have higher housing densities and poorer quality housing than the United States.

    Kantrowitz, Cornell BS '00 and MS '01 in applied research in human-environment relations, who worked on the project as an undergraduate student, now is a research analyst for Hillier of Princeton, NJ, an international architecture firm. The research was supported, in part, by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health and by Cornell's New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.