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

This course will travel to New Orleans over winter break. We will 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.

Sample Course Readings

Carl Abraham Zimring, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

Anna Clark, The Poisoned City: Flints Water and the American Urban Tragedy

Steve Lerner, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States

Dorceta E. Taylor, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility

Mona Hanna Attisha, What the Eyes Don't See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City