Environmental Justice: A Quest

Environmental Justice: A Quest

More than 30 years ago, Jerome Nriagu’s career shifted course when he discovered that low-income children in urban areas were suffering disproportionately from lead poisoning. While industry leaders tended to blame the victims, Nriagu saw that the real cause of the problem was poor housing and the indiscriminate use of lead paint. “This got me really interested in environmental injustice and disproportionate exposure,” says the Nigerian-born professor of environmental health sciences.

Since then Nriagu has fought tirelessly for environmental justice. He has worked to blunt the health impact of oil pollution in the Niger Delta, to address health disparities in South Africa, and to minimize exposure to contaminated foods grown in cadmium-laced soil in Jamaica. He’s now working to reduce arsenic poisoning in the groundwater of poverty-stricken villages in rural west Bengal.

Closer to home, Nriagu is studying the impact of the Rouge River auto plant on the health of Arab-Americans in and around Dearborn, and he is working with a faith-based group in Saginaw, Michigan—where more than a quarter of children and teens live in poverty—on a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development study aimed at addressing housing- and neighborhood-based health hazards.

Nriagu says there’s a clear link between diseases like asthma and lead poisoning and low-income housing, where poor ventilation typically compounds the ill effects of molds, dust mites, roaches, tobacco smoke, and volatile organic compounds such as furniture varnishes.

The researchers have designed a scoring system to measure neighborhood risk factors in Saginaw, including litter, graffiti, abandoned houses and cars, and outdoor home, street, and sidewalk maintenance. By quantifying neighborhood risk factors and compiling them in an index, they hope to contribute to the development of targeted interventions to reduce the city’s disease burden.

They’re also creating their own interventions by providing high-risk homes with vacuum cleaners and other products to help minimize health risks, “rather than wait until they show up in the ER with lead poisoning or asthma,” Nriagu says. <