Analyzing Environmental Justice

This lesson helps students understand how pollution disproportionately affects people who are poor and members of racial and ethnic minorities as well as use a map to locate environmental injustice.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • See how pollution disproportionately affects people who are poor and members of racial and ethnic minorities
  • Explore reasons why people who are poor members of racial and ethnic minorities are often exposed to more pollution than others
  • Define environmental justice
  • Use a map to locate environmental injustice 
  • Read graphs to learn about environmental discrimination 
  • Think about solutions to environmental discrimination 
Essential Questions
  • What is environmental justice?
  • How is pollution related to inequality?
  • How can maps and graphs help us see where injustice exists?


pollution [ puh-loo-shuhn ] (noun) material in the natural environment that does not belong there, and that damages the environment and living things, including people

inequality [ in-i-kwol-i-tee ] (noun) unfairness; a situation in which some people gain privileges simply because they are members of a group defined by race, wealth, sexual orientation or other factors. Those who are not members of those groups are denied the same privileges.

environmental justice [ en-vahy-ruhn-muhnt-l juhs-tis ] (noun) The fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, incomes and educational levels with respect to the development and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies

environmental racism [ en-vahy-ruhn-muhnt-l rey-siz-m ] (noun) the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color



1. This lesson is about pollution, and why it affects some groups of people more than others. Working with a small group, clarify some definitions by answering these questions. What is pollution? What are some of its causes? What are some effects of pollution?

2. Now think about who is affected most by pollution. List your answers in the left-hand column of the chart called The Effects of Pollution: Who and Why. When you’ve got your list, look at the right-hand column. Think about why each group of people is affected by pollution. For example, if the left-hand column reads “people with asthma,” then in the right-hand column you might write “because they have a physical health issue.”

3. When you’ve filled in the chart, look to see if your list includes any groups of people who are affected by pollution for reasons besides their physical health. For example, do you have low-income people on your list? If not, add it to the left column, and discuss with your group why low-income people might be more affected by pollution than those who have more money.

4. Then add “members of race and ethnic minority groups” to the left-hand column if it’s not already there, because members of race and ethnic minority groups are more likely to be exposed to pollution than others. Fill in the right-hand column with the reason(s) why this might be true.

5. Now look at the map Air Pollution in Minority Areas. This is a map of Connecticut. Use the guidelines below to help you interpret the information it presents. With your group, look at the key.

  • What two kinds of information does the map show?
  • What do the yellow dots represent?
  • What do the different shades of blue represent?
  • What do you notice about where the yellow dots are concentrated?
  • Write a sentence or two summarizing what the map shows.
  • Write a sentence or two explaining why the situation that the map shows exists.
  • What is unfair about the situation the map shows? Why might it be difficult for the people in the polluted areas to move somewhere less polluted?
  • Read the definition of environmental justice. What would a more environmentally just situation look like on the map?

At this point select from option 1 or 2 to conclude this lesson.

Option 1 (for a more in-depth discussion and unpacking of the concept of environmental bias):

6. As you have seen from the map of Connecticut, one way that members of race and ethnic minorities sometimes experience discrimination is the fact that air pollution sources are more likely to be located in the areas where they live. Another group that sometimes experiences discrimination is defined by their income. There is evidence that one place that income-based discrimination shows up is that people of lower economic status are more likely to live in areas near pollutants than those with higher status. Look at this evidence of the relationship of income to exposure to pollution by studying some graphs of data gathered in Massachusetts.

a. Look at graphic 1 Exposure to Chemical Releases According to Income. Write a sentence under the graph that summarizes in words what it shows. Then do the same for graphic 2 Exposure to Hazardous Waste Sites According to Income. What relationship do the graphs show between income and exposure to pollution?

b. Complete the same tasks for the two remaining graphs 3 and 4: Exposure to Hazardous Waste Sites According to Race and Exposure to Chemical Releases According to Race. What relationship do the graphs show between race and exposure to pollution?

7. The data show that race and income are connected to exposure to pollution. As a class, discuss reasons why that might be true. Define the term “environmental bias.” Do you think environmental bias is happening in the situations shown in the graphs? In other words, do you think that it is an institutionalized system that unfairly deprives people of the right not to be exposed to toxins? Do you think it is an institutionalized system that unfairly protects some people from such exposure simply because of their race, ethnicity, or financial status? Why or why not?

8. Look at your own community, town, or state. What examples of environmental biases do you see? For example, do highways, with their noise and pollution, cut through neighborhoods where people who are poor live? Do people who are members of poor and/or minority communities live near power plants that pollute the air? Then see if there are any groups that are addressing these inequalities. If so, contact them to see how you can help. If not, look at what groups in other areas are doing to address environmental biases. What can you do to address similar problems in your area?

Option 2:

6. Think about your community.

a. What source(s) of pollution exist? For example, does a major highway cut through your town, exposing residents to a lot of noise and fumes? Is there a landfill or a hazardous waste disposal area? Is there a power plant that is noisy and puts smoke into the air?

b. Who lives in the areas where these pollutants are concentrated? Is there a pattern similar to what you saw on the map of Connecticut?

c. Are there any organizations or individuals in your area talking about the situation being unjust?

7. What would a more environmentally just situation look like in your community?

Find out about efforts in your area to secure environmental justice. If there is a local organization, invite a member to speak to your class. If not, see if you can start a group at your school to learn more about environmental justice.


Summarizing What You've Learned

One way to consolidate what you’ve learned is to summarize it. Think of it as explaining what you’ve learned to someone who doesn’t know anything about it. Do this using one of the following techniques, or use one of your own.

  • Write a paragraph.
  • Make a bulleted list of the key points.
  • Make a slide show (with or without illustrations).