Chasing the Evidence: Environmental Justice Policies Must Be Based on Hard Evidence, but Establishing Links between Social Deprivation and Environmental Damage Has Proved Difficult

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The drive to make environmental justice a part of UK government policy has steadily gained momentum since the beginning of the decade. At the International Geographical Union Conference in Glasgow last summer, Helen Chalmers, social-policy development officer at the UK's Environment Agency, said, "Environmental justice has fallen on deaf ears up to now. But it will form a key part of sustainable-development policy."

The problem the government faces is gathering the evidence it needs to back up its policies that relate to environmental justice. "Our agency has a remit to protect human health," says Chalmers. "We need to do that based on hard evidence. We can't decline an application from industry because we think it might be detrimental to an area. We can only do it based on the proof of health impact."

Professor Gordon Walker of the University of Staffordshire was part of a group that was commissioned by the Environment Agency to provide harder evidence of a link between poor environment and poverty. Walker's team at Staffordshire, working with a second team based at the University of Leeds, has found that air in the most deprived wards has the highest concentrations of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and benzene. The research subsequently looked at pollution from factories and waste dumps, both of which come under the government's Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) licensing regime.

According to Walker, there are five times more IPC sites and seven times more sources of pollution emissions in the most deprived wards compared with the least deprived. "IPC sites are disproportionately located in deprived areas," he says. "On top of that, they are more clustered together, produce more emissions, present a greater pollution hazard and produce more-offensive pollution." However, he questions whether this link in itself is enough to trigger a policy to enforce tighter controls on IPC sites or to stop new potentially polluting sites from being built in a particular area. "Is proximity a good surrogate for impact, particularly if you look at health impacts?" he asks.

Part of the problem is determining exposure. According to Dr Ben Wheeler, a researcher at the University of Sheffield's Department of Geography, "a tonne of data" is required to calculate where the emissions from a chimney stack go. Prevailing winds will mean that some communities will experience worse pollution than others. In Grangemouth, for example, the wind blows the waste gases from plants into the Forth River estuary for much of the year. But, when the winds swing around, the levels of sulphur dioxide in the village increase dramatically. Overall, however, average sulphur dioxide levels in the air in the village are lower than those in urban Edinburgh and Glasgow, according to figures released by the deputy minister for environment and rural development Allan Wilson. …