The Relationship Between the Health of our Planet and Social Determinants of Health | $name

A polluted city - smog fills the air.

The Relationship Between the Health of our Planet and Social Determinants of Health

Thu, Apr 25, 2024  -  Comments (0)  -   Posted by The Center for Health Affairs

On April 22, we celebrated Earth Day and were reminded of how delicate our relationship with the planet can be. Just like the plants and animals in nature, we’re connected to the health of the land, sea and sky.

Unfortunately, humans have caused damage to the environment in ways that may be irreversible. And these impacts are particularly severe for individuals and communities who are experiencing poverty and racial injustice. Let’s examine some of the ways our environment has been affected, how they relate to social determinants of health, and how they impact populations already experiencing social and economic hardships.

The Environment as a Social Determinant of Health

Healthy People 2030, a federal initiative that identifies public health priorities to help improve health and well-being, defines social determinants of health (SDoH) as the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. These determinants are many and varied, and among them are the physical environment, including such factors as air and water safety.

SDoH contribute to wide health disparities and inequities. Many people in the U.S. live in neighborhoods with unsafe air or water, and other health and safety risks. Racial and ethnic minorities and people with low incomes are more likely to live in places with these risks, making them disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental degradation.

Air Quality

Factories, highways and other sources of pollutants are commonly located near low-income housing. As pollution from factories and congested highways contribute to the decrease in air quality, the impact on health disparities is evident. Small airborne particles found in pollutants like exhaust, haze, smoke, soot and dust can lead to serious problems such as decreased lung growth in children, adverse birth outcomes, reduced lung function and asthma.


According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, these small airborne particles cause and exacerbate asthma in children, which in turn leads to more hospital visits and only adds to the financial hardships faced by many families living in these areas. Focusing efforts on improving our air by reducing pollution is one way to reduce this burden.

One way climate change harms human health is by increasing ground-level ozone levels and increasing temperatures across the planet. Wildfires continue to be an increasing threat as forests have become more vulnerable to fires as temperatures rise and some areas are susceptible to droughts. Smoke exposure to residents living in these areas results in respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations.

Heat Islands

Even in more populated areas, the rise in temperatures is a threat to humans. Major cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have experienced extreme heat events, which have led to deaths. The extreme heat is particularly impactful in city neighborhoods lacking trees, where heat islands can occur. Low-income, redlined neighborhoods, including those in Cleveland, are often those most heavily affected. Individuals who do not have access to housing, food or water, or those whose housing is without adequate cooling or who are unable to afford their utility bills, face a greater risk of injury or death in these events.

Water Quality

Filled with people, buildings, businesses and cars, cities face a concentration of negative environmental impacts that can accumulate at a quicker rate than in suburban areas. Industrial discharge, vehicles, commercial and residential wastewater, trash and polluted stormwater all contribute to the polluting of a city’s waterways which can lead to a decrease in the quality of drinking water as well as negatively impact natural swimming areas.

Economically disadvantaged residents who have no choice but to live in homes that contain lead pipes are also at greater risk. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, Cleveland ranks second, behind Chicago, in the most lead service lines, which are the pipes that connect the water main to the plumbing in a home or building. In 2021, Cleveland Water reported about 43% of its service lines were lead.

Soil Lead Contamination

While lead is naturally present in soils, it most often holds a range of 15-40 parts lead per million parts of soil (ppm). The situation becomes dangerous when pollution increases soil lead levels into the hundreds and even thousands of ppm and becomes a risk to everyone, but specifically to young children. This contamination can happen in cities where vacant lots that once held homes covered in lead paint have been transformed into community gardens or backyards converted into personal gardens.

Other significant causes of soil contamination include insecticide and gasoline. Fortunately, both have phased out lead as an ingredient, but since lead can remain in soil for hundreds of years, their impact remains and affects our planet to this day.

How Can We Help Protect and Improve Environmental Health?

The intersection of poverty, inadequate infrastructure, and environmental hazards creates a perfect storm for health disparities. But what can be done to fix this?


Providing safe housing, reducing exposure to pollutants, and ensuring access to green spaces are important steps toward promoting environmental justice and mitigating the damage produced by climate change. Through our SDoH Innovation Hub, The Center for Health Affairs is engaging with people and organizations across the community, including local businesses, nonprofit organizations, government officials, community residents, and policymakers, to create and implement solutions.


Each of us can play a role in reaching out to policymakers and other stakeholders to produce comprehensive policies and programs, especially for low-income residents who have few—if any—advocates. You can find contact information for your state’s representatives here.

Posted in Population Health
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