Links between climate change and health disparities explored at University of Maryland


Nicole Pasia


Climate change and environmental policies play a major role in our health, and when left unchecked can negatively impact vulnerable communities and exacerbate health disparities. 

Last week, the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) program under the University of Maryland School of Public Health gathered environmental experts for roundtable discussions at the 8th Annual UMD Symposium on Environmental Justice and Health Disparities


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The symposium featured several keynote and breakout sessions, both in person and virtual, over 3 days. One panel to know was “Environmental Justice and Environmental Health Disparities,” where several panelists discussed specific ways climate is impacting the health of vulnerable communities, and actionable solutions. 

Dr. Ami Zota, an associate professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, focuses on the intersectionality between environmental health and justice and the effects of racism and sexism on Black and Brown women. For example, Zota said Black and Latinx women are more likely to use beauty products which may contain harmful ingredients due to Euro-centric beauty standards. Zota said a multi-sector approach policymakers, businesses, and shifts in community social norms must occur to enact meaningful change.

“The big elephant in the room is that the chemicals in our products are highly unregulated,” Zota said during the discussion. “We don’t have laws that keep us safe.”

Zota’s work also includes working with community-based organizations to develop intervention studies to support women of color as they transition to using healthier beauty products and practices. 

Dr. Adrienne Hollis, Vice President of Environmental Justice, Health, and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, spoke how racist environmental policies contributed to widespread health disparities in communities of color. Hollis said historic redlining and other practices have led to poor housing conditions for vulnerable communities, leaving them at higher risk for not only natural disasters, but adverse health problems. 

“When homes flood, people don’t have the money necessary to remediate and repair, and may end up in situations where they are constantly exposed to mold and mildew—including black mold,” Hollis said. “The insurance sector can also play a role here, as people can’t get insurance in some cases unless they have their homes lifted 10 feet, for example, a requirement that’s not available to people struggling with economic issues.”

Hollis outlined a comprehensive framework of studying the impact of climate change across multiple sectors, including race, ethnicity, economic status, and other social determinants of health. 

“We need sustainable ways to feed and clothe ourselves. We need to eat and drink and to live in safe environments. We need equitable development and infrastructure and safe access to schools and recreational areas and economic improvement. We need to consider that challenges faced by environmental justice communities first, but ultimately all communities, stem from a confluence of issues and stressors.”

See the full discussion here