By Maria Lopez-Nunez, Michellene Davis and Jaye Wilson
For generations, families of color across the country have endured racial inequities that severely impact their health. This unacceptable reality is most evident in the Black maternal mortality rate in the United States, which is a staggering four times higher than that of white women, and in New Jersey alone, it is seven times higher making Black women more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth than women in any other racial demographic.
Although Black maternal and child health continues to make headlines, there are two contributing factors that are not getting enough focus: climate change and environmental injustice. Pregnant women who are exposed to high temperatures or air pollution are more likely to have children who are premature, underweight or stillborn.
That is why when we discuss health equity in this country, specifically Black maternal health, it is imperative that we recognize the implications of environmental injustice and climate change. Air pollution and extreme heat are killing inner-city residents at a higher rate than almost all other causes according to a 2020 peer-reviewed study published in the journal, Climate.
This is a serious public health emergency.
A new report also found that communities of color and those living below the poverty line experience disproportionately hotter temperatures compared to white or wealthy people in U.S. cities. These communities experience hotter temperatures on average because they have more concrete and asphalt and fewer green spaces and tree coverage.
Lets be very clear about one thing. This is not by mistake, but rather by design.
The nearly century-old, discriminatory housing practice of redlining has left many Black and brown neighborhoods exposed to deadly, hotter temperatures than the areas that were not subjected to redlining. The 2020 study published in Climate also found an indisputable link between higher heat and redlined neighborhoods, where lower-income families and communities of color still live today.
Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come.
With climate change expected to bring higher temperatures and more frequent heat waves, those same historically redlined neighborhoods will be left to endure increasingly dangerous and deadly health consequences.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also found that Black, Latino/a, Asian, and other people of color are disproportionately exposed to air pollutants, urban emissions, and toxic industries that affect mental well-being and have serious public health implications. This is not surprising given that multiple studies have concluded that race is the single biggest predictor of whether an individual lives near a hazardous waste facility.
In fact, a 2016 environmental justice study by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Montana found that industries specifically target Black, brown, and low-income communities for placement of hazardous waste facilities.
This is blatant and intentional discrimination.
As women working on the frontlines of health equity, our goal is to raise awareness and deliver solutions that create systemic change.
At National Medical Fellowships, we support underrepresented Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students in medicine and other health professions as well as advance diversity in clinical trials in order to achieve equity and access to quality health care for all.
Melinated Moms aims to dismantle the barriers associated with motherhood, womanhood, and sisterhood while reshaping the world of maternal health for women of color. And the work of the Ironbound Community Corporation with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council is about advocating and organizing for concrete policy solutions to advance environmental justice.
While we certainly have more work to do, the efforts of advocacy organizations led to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signing the New Jersey Environmental Justice Law, which makes New Jersey the first state in the country to require mandatory permit denials if an environmental justice analysis determines that a new facility will have a negative impact on overburdened communities. This law can serve as a national model.
Similarly, New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy launched the Nurture NJ Strategic Plan, which is working to reduce the states maternal and infant mortality rates through solutions championed by the communities that are impacted by these inequities. As a result, Gov. Phil Murphy has signed over 42 pieces of legislation to address this urgent issue.
These are important steps forward, but more must be done locally and nationally to address health equity and the Black maternal health crisis.
That is why we are coming together to raise awareness and advance an action agenda through IMAGINE MORE: Racial Justice Begins with Us, a virtual series that brings together one of the largest and most diverse lineups of New Jersey organizations and voices from across the ideological spectrum to develop a strategic plan for racial justice and reparations aimed at repairing the harm of ongoing systemic injustice. This event series is about making sure that the promises made during the racial reckoning are kept.
IMAGINE MORE is ensuring people have the information and tools to push for policies and change in their own communities. The series covers disparities in economics, the criminal justice system, housing, education, healthcare, and political power because all of these issues are interconnected. Join us for the next IMAGINE MORE installment, Ensuring Health for All, taking place on Tuesday, June 21 at 6 p.m.
True systemic change requires education, advocacy, and movement buildingand it starts with us. Lets imagine a more just, fair, and equitable future together.
Maria Lopez-Nunez is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and deputy director of organizing and advocacy for the Ironbound Community Corporation.
Michellene Davis, Esq., is president and chief executive officer of National Medical Fellowships.
Jaye Wilson, LPN, is the founder and chief executive officer of Melinated Moms.
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