This Earth Day, Let’s Treat Environmental Justice as a Gender Equity Issue

by | Apr 20, 2023 | Maternal Health

It’s almost Earth Day – a day dedicated to protecting our planet from the effects of climate change and other environmental hazards. As we celebrate Earth Day and reflect on the steps we can all take to protect our planet, it’s important to highlight that climate change doesn’t impact everyone equally. Decades of racist policies – from housing to infrastructure to economic policies – often restricted low-income communities and communities of color to areas with more environmental hazards and heavy pollution; they’re also more susceptible to natural disasters caused by climate change. These inequities have led to increasingly insurmountable environmental and health challenges among Black communities, women, and low-income communities. BIPOC mothers and babies, in particular, have often carried the brunt of this burden. That’s why we’re taking a closer look at the intersection between environmental justice and maternal health.

As annual average temperatures rise around the U.S., heat-mitigation strategies are more important than ever. But extreme heat is a growing problem across the country and one that particularly impacts low-income communities of color. City planners simultaneously invested in parks, green spaces, and ‘cooling services’ in whiter and wealthier neighborhoods while building heat-trapping structures such as highways, cement, and asphalt in underserved communities to save costs.

It’s already difficult for pregnant people to regulate their own temperatures, rising temperatures make it even harder. Our study on extreme heat and pregnant health revealed that exposure to heat was associated with an increased risk of preterm and early-term birth, low birth weight, stillbirth and harmful newborn stress.

Furthermore, landfills, waste, and other industry projects create pollution that is especially harmful to expecting and new mothers. Greater exposure to air pollution directly increases one’s risk for high blood pressure, respiratory diseases and preterm birth – all leading causes of maternal mortality. Common sources of fresh air – such as access to green space – can reduce these disparities and result in positive pregnancy outcomes. But underserved communities often lack green community spaces, as well as access to healthy food and safe housing structures.

These inequities even trickle into the water we drink. Our report on the intersection between clean water and reproductive health demonstrated that BIPOC women are most at risk of exposure to unsafe water. Millions of families across the United States face daily exposure to contaminated water sources that impact their ability to cook, bathe, wash their hands, and drink. This impacts the reproductive health of too many women of color and their families, who deserve to raise babies in a safe and healthy environment.

So, what can we do? Tackling climate change means acknowledging environmental justice as a gender equity issue. It means centering strategies that prioritize moms and babies, from equitable green space to heat-regulation stations. And it means providing parents and pregnant people with adequate paid leave policies so they can care for themselves and their families.

Everyone deserves access to clean air, safe water and a healthy environment. As you celebrate Earth Day this weekend, remember that climate change is not a one-size-fits all issue. When we focus on equitable climate strategies, we have to create policies that build a planet that’s safe for everyone.