When you think of environmental health, what images come to mind? Perhaps lots of green, recycling symbols, and activists protesting about climate change. Before I started my service year, those were some of the things that I associated with this dimension of health. It was just part of the messaging that I got through media, day in and day out. These images are typically ones that my clients also associate with environmental health before we start a workshop. In my workshops, however, we don’t talk much about recycling and climate change (although a lot of my educational materials still have green on them) but rather, we talk about the environment of our own bodies and the ways our bodies interact with the spaces we put ourselves in. That is the way that I start every workshop, by encouraging conversations that make my clients think about environmental health in a different way. Facilitating these conversations guides people to see that they themselves are a piece of the puzzle when it comes to the environment, that it is not just a political issue on the news.
In my role as an Outreach Coordinator at Women for a Healthy Environment, I get to facilitate workshops related to lead, asthma, air quality, and the use of personal care and cleaning products, all of which are topics that aren’t the first ones that come to mind when thinking about environmental health. However, these topics are ones that have a bigger effect on us on at an individual level then recycling. At every workshop, I have to create interest and buy in for my clients; to make them see how important it is to read the ingredient labels on beauty products and to avoid those that contain chemicals that affect hormonal levels and eventually lead to negative health outcomes. In addition, I emphasize how important it is to have a certified lead filter in the home for all drinking and cooking water- especially if there is a child under the age of 6 in the home.
These are conversations that are especially important for the client population that I serve. My outreach is specifically directed to hosting workshops for the growing refugee, immigrant, and international communities in the greater Pittsburgh area. This is critical, as it is often communities of color that carry the highest environmental justice burden. Environmental justice is the “recognition that minority and low-income communities often bear a disproportionate share of environmental costs – and the perception that this is unjust” (1). Basically that means that due to environmental factors and other social determinant of health (housing, transportation, affordability to only buy products with high toxic loads, etc.) communities of color are often the ones that are more vulnerable to being exposed to environmental harms that affect their health. An example, and one that I’ve encountered in many communities, is as follows: the only housing that a family can afford is near a high emissions polluting factory. Due to the factory, the air quality in that area is lower, as the air is filled with chemically heavy emissions released from the factory. This in turn aggregates their child’s asthma, especially on days when the air quality is worse. Due to a social determinant of health (housing) and an environmental factor (the location of that home being near a factory that affects the air quality) that family is carrying a higher environmental justice burden (aggregation of their child’s asthma). Due to factors that a family had limited choice in, they are seeing hazardous environmental factors affecting their families health.
The realization of this unjust perception is what has brought about my new perspective and passion for environmental health and the importance of workshops. Workshops are my absolute favorite part of my position, due to the 1:1 interactions and group discussions. We talk together about past experiences, barriers, and strategies for change. My clients are learning new ways to become their own environmental advocates, and I’m just thankful to be a part of their journey.
This post was written by NPHC member Lizzet Suarez.
Lizzet serves at Women for a Healthy Environment as an Outreach Coordinator.