From its earliest days, environmental justice research has been rooted in the social movement that gave its name to the field. Grassroots activists against income and racial discrimination in the placement of environmental pollutants—and the overlooking of low-income and communities of color for environmental amenities—have enlisted toxicologists, demographers, engineers, and public health scholars to uncover damages.

Starting with analysis of the 1982 toxic waste site in the predominately Black community Warren County, North Carolina, and continuing today with studies of the tainted waters in Flint, Michigan, and Jackson, Mississippi, these researchers continue to bring to light systemic inequities in environmental justice. Rigorous studies (PDF) have found that race is the most significant factor in siting hazardous waste facilities and where particulates end up getting emitted into nearby air, soil, and water, thereby creating “sacrifice zones” and communities at the frontlines of hazard exposures. Some recent studies by economists on these issues have found that people of color are being steered into less desirable neighborhoods, according to Lala Ma, assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics.

But the research can only go so far, according to Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Multiple studies have shown the negative effects of hazardous waste siting on the health and well-being of surrounding communities, but little was done to rectify the situation, Pastor said. He believes the next frontiers of environmental justice are taking “precautionary, preventative, and cumulative” approaches that address the underlying compounding effects of multiple environmental shocks and persistent social stressors on the same communities.

By taking a cumulative, neighborhood-centric approach, researchers can better demonstrate the severity of exposure communities experience.

Read the full article about environmental justice by Wesley Jenkins at Urban Institute.