Policy Brief

They Can’t Breathe: A Proposal to Increase the Amount of Mental Health Care Workers in Low Income, Minority Communities Affected By Environmental Injustice

Madison Hujber
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action


Environmental racism negatively affects both the mental and physical health of low income, minority citizens of the United States of America. Environmental racism is defined as “[A] term [that] is used to describe environmental injustice that occurs within a racialized context both in practice and policy.”[3] Low income, minority communities are more likely to be located near waste dumping sites and other harmful sources of pollution.[4] This disproportion of low income, minority communities and their proximity to harmful pollutants such as waste dumping sites, factory farms, pesticides, and other harmful chemicals, in comparison to affluent white communities, leads to many mental and physical problems for low income, minority citizens of the United States of America. 


There are numerous examples of environmental racism throughout the United States of America.[6] Some shocking studies have found that people who reside in areas that are more than 80 percent minority are twice as likely to live near permitted wastewater wells than areas that are less than 20 percent minority. [6] Another research study yielded results that display the extreme positive correlation between lead poisoning and race.[11] Figure 1 displays the correlation of race and BLL (Broad Lead Level) in children of various races. Figure 1 proves that there is a correlation between racial minorities, particularly non-Hispanic, Black children, and higher BLL levels than non-Hispanic, White children. 


Research demonstrates a prominent correlation between low income, minority communities and heightened exposure to airborne particulate matter (airborne pollution).[2] The heightened levels of exposure to particulate matter in low income, minority communities leads to increased asthma severity, low birth weights, and high blood pressure. [10][1] The degradation of physical health in low income, minority communities who are in close proximity to industry and waste dumping sites influences the mental health of community members. With startling amounts of people in these communities perishing from airborne and waterborne diseases caused by environmental injustice, it is understandable why these communities display heightened rates of mental illness.



A graph displaying broad lead levels by ethnicity

Figure 1 (BLL stands for Broad Lead Level)




Researchers have determined that proximity to waste dumping sites, factory farms, and other industrial polluters leads to heightened feelings of hopelessness and depression in communities affected by environmental injustice.[5] Figure 2 displays the correlation between proximity to industry, race, and feelings of depression and hopelessness in comparison to other races and factors. Due to the prevalence of environmental racism in the United States, low income, minority communities not only suffer from heightened rates of physical diseases in comparison to higher-income non-Hispanic, white people[7][8], but also drastically heightened rates of depression and feelings of hopelessness.[5]  Low income, minority communities have less access to both mental and physical health-care facilities due to a lack of funding and resources.[9]


A graph displaying the factors that contribute to higher rates of feelings of hopelessness and depression, including race

Figure 2 (Mental Health Correlations with Proximity to industry, Race, and Other Factors)


Increased Significance

Another factor that is influencing low income, minority communities who are affected by environmental injustice is COVID-19. COVID-19 is more deadly in areas that experience pollution[12][15], and people who live for decades in areas with high concentrations of particulate matter (airborne pollution) are eight percent more likely to die from COVID-19.[12] COVID-19 has also been found to be more deadly in people who have preexisting conditions, and low income, minority communities who are subject to environmental racism display heightened rates of preexisting conditions. As per the CDC, low income, minority communities are more likely to live in densely populated areas, more likely to live further from grocery stores and medical facilities, and more likely to live in multigenerational households (which prevents older family members from quarantining); these factors severely worsen the effects of COVID-19 on low income, minority communities. [16]Communities affected by environmental racism are more likely to be drastically affected by COVID-19; now, more than ever, it is imperative that policy in favor of helping communities affected by environmental injustice is passed.


Existing Proposed Policy

There exists a decent amount of proposed policy to combat environmental injustice, but not much of said proposed policy regards the mental health effects of environmental injustice. One proposed Bill states that communities of color, indigenous, and low income communities who are affected by environmental racism are to have “meaningful access to public information and opportunities for participation in decision making affecting human health and the environment” (Bill S.2236, 2019, “Environmental Justice Act of 2019,” Sec. 2)[14]. Another Bill has been proposed to award federal grants to communities affected by environmental injustice (Bill S.3680, 2019, “A Bill to Require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to Continue to Carry out Certain Programs Relating to Environmental Justice, and for Other Purposes,” Sec. 2)[13]. These Bills would significantly benefit low income, minority communities who are affected by environmental racism, but there is little to no proposed policy that regards a solution to the heightened rates of depression and feelings of hopelessness in low income, minority communities who are affected by environmental racism. 


Proposed Policy

To combat the mental health epidemic in low income, minority communities affected by environmental injustice, more mental health workers should be brought into their public high schools. If more mental health workers were brought into public high schools that are demographically 80 percent (or greater) minority, and within 1 mile of waste dumping sites, factory farms, or other large sources of pollution, the mental health of the community would gradually benefit. This would allow children growing up in affected communities to learn coping mechanisms and valuable mental health skills to better handle their current situation, future hardships, and increase community members’ general mental well-being. This would be especially invaluable for low income, minority communities, as mental health care is expensive, and these communities lack resources. 

Governmentally appointed school psychologists would be licensed psychologists who either want to work as federal government employees (as opposed to state government employees), and/or desire to be placed in low income, minority communities who are in dire need of their services. The money to pay for the salaries of the government mandated mental health workers would come from a portion of the taxes collected by the United States of America. Another option for program funding is that the United States could sequester funds from police forces on a state by state basis, and utilize some of the funds to benefit communities affected by environmental racism. Some of the money from the billions of dollars that are allocated to state police budgets each year could be used to fund the salaries of the mental health workers, develop closer health care centers in minority communities who lack nearby health care facilities, and develop economic reform within low income, minority communities affected by environmental racism. The allocation of funds to low income, minority communities could help to dismantle systemic racism in the United States of America, as well as help to aid some of the effects of environmental racism in low income, minority communities.


Approximate Costs

The approximate costs for the implementation of this program are difficult to calculate. No data exists displaying the amount of low income, minority communities who are in close proximity to large sources of pollution in the United States of America. Therefore, the policy may have to be implemented on a case by case basis. The average salary for a school psychologist is $77,430.[17] The United States Government would have to pay their governmentally funded school psychologists a minimum starting salary of $70,000. The United States Government could compile the demographic data for every public-school district in the United States of America, and then cross reference that data with known sources of pollution in the United States of America. If the school district’s minority status is over 80 percent (ie. Less than 20% Non-Hispanic, white students), and there is a large site of pollution within 1 mile of a school in the school district, then the school district is entitled to an additional, government provided social worker per every 600 students, for the public high school(s) within the school district.


Possible Counterarguments

A counterargument to this proposed policy is that the additional mental health workers in the public high schools would cost the school district more money, and the school district may not have sufficient funds to support additional staff. To combat this issue, the federal government should be required to supply, and pay, the school district’s additional mental health workers. 

Some possible challenges for implementation would be determining the schools who are eligible for this policy. The process could get messy because life is not black and white, and numbers do not always tell the whole story. If a school is 79 percent minority and within 1.1 miles of a large source of pollution, as opposed to the proposed policy requirements of 80 percent minority and within 1 mile of a large source of pollution, the United States Government cannot simply turn that school district away from valuable resources that they most likely need. There shall be a case by case analysis for school districts that feel that they deserve to be eligible for the policy, but do not meet the specific cutoffs for minority demographics and proximity to polluters (absolute minimum: 70 percent minority demographics, 5 mile distance from a large source of pollution).



  1. Auchincloss, Amy H., et al. “Associations between Recent Exposure to Ambient Fine Particulate Matter and Blood Pressure in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA).” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 116, no. 4, 2008, pp. 486–491., doi:10.1289/ehp.10899. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2291007/  
  2. Bell, Michelle L., and Keita Ebisu. “Environmental Inequality in Exposures to Airborne Particulate Matter Components in the United States.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 120, no. 12, 2012, pp. 1699–1704., doi:10.1289/ehp.1205201. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3546368/)
  3. Bullard, Robert D (2001). "Environmental Justice in the 21st Century: Race Still Matters". Phylon. 49 (3–4): 151–171. doi:10.2307/3132626
  4. Collins, Mary B, et al. “Linking ‘Toxic Outliers’ to Environmental Justice Communities.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 11, no. 1, 2016, p. 015004., doi:10.1088/1748-9326/11/1/015004.  (https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/1/015004#erlaa0e28s4)
  5. Downey, Liam, and Marieke Van Willigen. “Environmental Stressors: The Mental Health Impacts of Living Near Industrial Activity.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 46, no. 3, 2005, pp. 289–305., doi:10.1177/002214650504600306. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3162363/)
  6. Johnston, Jill E., et al. “Wastewater Disposal Wells, Fracking, and Environmental Injustice in Southern Texas.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 106, no. 3, 2016, pp. 550–556., doi:10.2105/ajph.2015.303000. (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26794166/)
  7. Landrigan, Philip J., et al. “Environmental Justice and the Health of Children.” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine: A Journal of Translational and Personalized Medicine, vol. 77, no. 2, 2010, pp. 178–187., doi:10.1002/msj.20173. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6042867/)
  8. McClurg, Lesley. “Scientists Seek Genetic Clues To Asthma's Toll On Black Children.” NPR, NPR, 7 June 2016, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/ 07/481092103/scientsts-seek-genetic-clues-to-why- asthma-is-deadlier-in-blacks. (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/07/481092103/scientsts-seek-genetic-clues-to-why-asthma-is-deadlier-in-blacks)
  9. Mcguire, Thomas G., and Jeanne Miranda. “New Evidence Regarding Racial And Ethnic Disparities In Mental Health: Policy Implications.” Health Affairs, vol. 27, no. 2, 2008, pp. 393–403., doi:10.1377/hlthaff.27.2.393. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3928067/)
  10. Salam, Muhammad T., et al. “Birth Outcomes and Prenatal Exposure to Ozone, Carbon Monoxide, and Particulate Matter: Results from the Children’s Health Study.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 113, no. 11, 2005, pp. 1638–1644., doi:10.1289/ehp.8111. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1310931/  
  11. Sampson, Robert J., and Alix S. Winter. “The Racial Ecology Of Lead Poisoning.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, vol. 13, no. 2, 2016, pp. 261–283., doi:10.1017/s1742058x16000151. https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/alixwinter/files/sampson_winter_2016.pdf
  12. Tedesco, Marco. “Coronavirus Has a Strong Ally: Pollution.” State of the Planet, 29 May 2020, blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/05/29/coronavirus-strong-ally-pollution/?utm_campaign=later-linkinbio-earthinstitute&utm_content=later-7498360&utm_medium=social&utm_source=instagram.   (https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2020/05/29/coronavirus-strong-ally-pollution/?utm_campaign=later-linkinbio-earthinstitute&utm_content=later-7498360&utm_medium=social&utm_source=instagram)
  13. United States, Congress, A Bill to Require the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to Continue to Carry out Certain Programs Relating to Environmental Justice, and for Other Purposes. 2019. (https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3680/text?q=%7B%22search%22%3A%5B%22Environment+and+Public+Works+%5C%22environmental+injustice%5C%22%22%5D%7D&r=1&s=1)
  14. United States, Congress, Environmental Justice Act of 2019. 2019. (https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/2236/text)
  15. “Air Pollution Linked with Higher COVID-19 Death Rates.” News, 5 May 2020, www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/air-pollution-linked-with-higher-covid-19-death-rates/?fbclid=IwAR2HCsnypPlkl1Z8qI4siVvy7T7fa34WHvi5yqj8m37TZsEOg6swYfT3dGM.  
  16. “COVID-19 in Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 June 2020, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/racial-ethnic-minorities.html.
  17. “What Is the Cost of Providing Students with Adequate Psychological Support.” National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), www.nasponline.org/research-and-policy/policy-matters-blog/what-is-the-cost-of-providing-students-with-adequate-psychological-support.

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