Care for Our Common Home: Environmental Justice for Upper Division Students

The Mission of a Catholic institution calls it to be attentive to environmental injustice as well as social and economic injustices. Indeed, the issues are deeply entwined. The Biblical command to be good stewards of God’s creation and the call to ease the suffering of the poor are both well-met in the practice of environmental justice.

In my Environmental Chemistry course, I provide students with the opportunity to explore connections between environmental pollution and environmental justice.1 The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” This goal “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work” (US EPA). There is a correlation between air pollution exposure and income level; not everyone is enjoying the same healthy environment.

When considering the relationship between air pollution and environmental justice, students must first access data. Luckily, many public databases contain measurements collected from federal and state agencies. For example, the US EPA has a repository of air quality data from over 10,000 ground monitors for air pollutants, like O3, CO, NOx, PM, and some VOCs, through the Air Quality System (AQS). Data can be accessed through various platforms, depending on the requirements of the analysis. For example, there are websites that are visually appealing and easy to understand,2 state-specific emission inventory data3 broken down by specific source type and time-frame, and maps derived from satellite data for visualizing global patterns.4 Most information can be downloaded for use in other programs; for example, numerical data can be opened as a spreadsheet and visualizations can be opened using Google Earth.

When relating environmental parameters to environmental justice, there is also a need for co-located demographic information. The most extensive dataset in the United States is the Census. Some Census data has become more accessible to the public. My students have correlated population density, income, and percent of non-white residents with air pollutant concentrations. 

I created a few different assignments for use in upper-division environmental science or environmental chemistry courses. The assignments use real air quality and census data to show students relationships of primary and secondary pollutants. Students must use their knowledge of chemistry and transport to explain the emission trends; they will see that primary pollutants, those emitted directly from sources, are concentrated in low-income areas. The majority of people who live in these areas are not white. When looking at data, students must remember the human element – people exposed, people involved in decision-making, legacy of pollution and political power. 

Assignment handouts are available upon request.

  • 1. Bouvier-Brown, N.C. Environmental Justice through Atmospheric Chemistry in Service Learning and Environmental Chemistry: Relevant Connections; Roberts-Kirchhoff, E.S., Mio, M.J., Benvenuto M.A., Eds.; ACS Symposium Series 1177; American Chemical Society: Washington D.C. 2014; pp 105-122
  • 2. e.g., Air Compare, Air Data, and AIR Now
  • 3. e.g., California Air Resources Board (ARB)
  • 4. e.g., National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) supports NASA Earth Observations (NEO)
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