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Confronting Racism in Environmental Health Sciences

Commentary by Devon Payne-Sturges and others presents recommendations for a path toward eliminating racial inequities

This commentary by Dr. Payne-Sturges and others was selected as one of the 15 most important papers for 2021 by Environmental Health Sciences.

The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism during 2020 have forced a conversation across many segments of our society, including the environmental health sciences (EHS) research community. We have seen the proliferation of statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and commitments to fight racism and health inequities from academia, nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, and private corporations. Actions must now arise from these promises. As public health and EHS scientists, we must examine the systems that produce and perpetuate inequities in exposure to environmental pollutants and associated health effects.

We outline five recommendations the EHS research community can implement to confront racism and move our science forward for eliminating racial inequities in environmental health.

Race is best considered a political label that promotes inequality. Thus, we should be wary of equating race with biology. Further, EHS researchers should seriously consider racism as a plausible explanation of racial disparities in health and consider structural racism as a factor in environmental health risk/impact assessments, as well as multiple explanations for racial differences in environmental exposures and health outcomes. Last, the EHS research community should develop metrics to measure racism and a set of guidelines on the use and interpretation of race and ethnicity within the environmental sciences. Numerous guidelines exist in other disciplines that can serve as models. By taking action on each of these recommendations, we can make significant progress toward eliminating racial disparities.

The five recommendations:

  1. Recognize That Race is a Social/Political Construct, Not a Fixed Biological Trait.
  2. Seriously Consider Racism as a Plausible Explanation of Racial Disparities in Health
  3. Develop New Measures of Racism
  4. Consider Structural Racism as a Factor in Environmental Health Risk/Impact Assessment
  5. Develop Guidelines on the Use of Race and Ethnicity within EHS 


See the article


Payne-Sturges, D. C., Gee, G. C., & Cory-Slechta, D. A. (2021). Confronting Racism in Environmental Health Sciences: Moving the Science Forward for Eliminating Racial Inequities. Environmental health perspectives, 129(5), 55002.