Mona Hanna-Attisha

Pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, right, discusses her role in exposing the Flint drinking water crisis during a Sunday Annual Meeting session. Photo by Julia Haskins, courtesy The Nation’s Health

You can’t talk about health equity without talking about environmental justice. As the panelists at Sunday’s Environmental Justice Town Hall made clear, allies in the fight for safer, healthier communities must look at the environmental factors that contribute to worse health outcomes among marginalized and underserved populations.

Communities most affected by pollution also disproportionately feel the impact of social determinants such as low levels of education, poor housing and lack of green space, said Diane Takvorian, executive director of the Environmental Health Coalition in San Diego, during the APHA Annual Meeting event. But how do we make sense of the environmental impacts on health and wellness in these communities? Enter CalEnviroScreen, a mapping tool that shows the burden of pollution and population characteristics across California.

Developing the tool was a matter of deep importance for Arsenio Mataka, ‎special assistant to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Mataka grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, where kids in his neighborhood played football in the cemetery because they didn’t have access to safe green space. He remembers seeing his parents dismissed at local government meetings when they brought up community environmental concerns.

When Mataka got to the California Environmental Protection Agency, he had to make the case for a pollution screening tool to both the organization and community members. But he knew that it would help empower people with evidence-based information about where they lived.

“We were driven by this belief that if we could somehow quantify the burden of pollution that people were catching hell from that we could change course of communities,” Mataka said.

Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comité Civico del Valle in Brawley, California, also stressed the need for collecting and accessing data to help communities develop solutions to environmental crises. One of the biggest issues affecting the Imperial Valley where Olmedo is based is poor air quality resulting from a drying shoreline on the Salton Sea. Water is another concern, as it’s critical to the health and economic viability of people living in the region, he said.

“Water is life and water is an extremely important element to maintaining our health,” Olmedo told town hall attendees. “We’re very fortunate to have support and partners because without having partners, it’s very difficult to really do much on our own.”

When looking at issues of water quality and access in the U.S., the crisis in Flint, Michigan, comes to the forefront. But what happened in Flint is not an isolated incident, said Mona Hanna-Attisha, founder and director of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, a partnership of Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital. Rather, “it is a story of what happens when you take away democracy,” she said, adding that it also reflects “a total disrespect of science.”

Hanna-Attisha discussed the ridicule and shaming she faced within her own academic community when she first began raising awareness about the high levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. Still, she encouraged allies in the public health space to step outside their comfort zones, actually working alongside community members to take action.

“If we want to change our communities and if we want to improve public health, we need the very credible voice of public health professionals and academia and scientists to work hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder, with these disadvantaged communities, and hopefully, finally, we will create more changes,” Hanna-Attisha said.