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Toxic Communities: Investigating Environmental Justice in the U.S.

Having access to the natural resources necessary to sustain health and livelihood is an essential human right. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, certain populations have not been afforded this right. Several studies have demonstrated that communities of color and those from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately impacted by air and water pollution. In this course, students will investigate the social, political, and economic factors that contribute to this disparity. How is it that certain groups of people do not have access to basic resources, or are systematically burdened with pollution or environmental hazards to a greater extent than other groups?

Inside the Classroom 

We will begin the course by reviewing the history of the environmental justice movement in the United States. Students will examine the social and political factors that contribute to populations being disproportionately impacted by environmental pollutants. To achieve these learning outcomes, we will review actual cases of environmental racism in the United States.

We will also discuss the mechanisms by which common environmental pollutants impact humans and other living organisms. We will specifically investigate the negative impacts of lead exposure, persistent organic pollutants and particulate matter (primary component of air pollution) on human health. Students will be able to understand and explain the following biological concepts:  basic cell structure and function, the importance of biological macromolecules (nucleic acids and proteins), cellular metabolism, and the central dogma (flow of genetic information). Students will also be provided with a foundational knowledge of toxicology.

This course will provide a general overview of the field and discuss the general mechanisms of action of classical toxicants and environmental pollutants. Students will be able to explain how toxic chemicals interfere with essential biological processes and biological systems.  This course will help students understand how toxicants, or poisons, impact cells and living organisms as a whole.

Outside the Classroom

Students will be able to apply concepts learned in the classroom to real-life experiences. We will accomplish this through experiential learning opportunities. We will meet with experts in the fields of air and water quality. We will travel to a local water treatment plant. We will also travel to the EPA Human Studies Facility to learn how government agencies are working to protect citizens from the dangers of environmental pollutants. 

We will also visit the Richmond City Health Department to learn more about their Lead Safe Richmond Program. In addition, we will meet with various members of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative. The VEJC is made up of 29 member organizations including community-based non-profits, faith-based, conservation and green organizations, as well as members in academia who are all passionate about protecting at-risk populations from the negative impacts of environmental pollutants.

Potential trip possibilities for this course could be Puerto Rico or New Orleans. We might travel to Puerto Rico to learn more about ongoing efforts related to environmental justice, as Hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017) have greatly contributed to the longstanding and widespread environmental contamination in Puerto Rico. We may also travel to Cancer Alley in Louisiana; a region along the Mississippi River, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, that contains numerous industrial facilities. There are also many clusters of cancer cases in this region.

About BIOL 120

BIOL 120 has no prerequisites, and satisfies the general education requirement for natural sciences (FSNB)

This course does not count toward major or minor requirements in Biology. 

Course Fast Facts

Dr. Shannon Jones

Fall Course:
BIOL 120: Modern Concepts in Biology with Lab (1 unit)
Satisifies the general education requirement FSNB

Spring Course:
IDST 290: Toxic Communities seminar (.5 unit)

Group Travel:
New Orleans, Louisiana (Winter Break)

Year(s) Offered:
2021–22, 2022–23