Morello Frosch pixPublished in DukeTODAY and February 18th – Poverty can make you sick. Rachel Morello-Frosch’s research traces the close connections in the United States between race and class and environmental factors such as air and water pollution and exposure to toxic chemicals, which are associated with illness and disease.

A professor at the University of California-Berkeley, Morello-Frosch studies environmental health through the lens of human rights. Her research approach aims to not only involve the community in data collection but in empowering residents to understand health risks and take action.

Morello-Frosch will speak on environmental justice and human rights at 4 p.m., Feb. 20, in The Garage at Smith Warehouse. Last week, she discussed her work with Duke student Betsy Santoyo, an intern with the Duke Human Rights Center@the Franklin Humanities Institute.

 Betsy Santoyo: How do you see human rights playing a role in undergraduate curriculum?

Rachel Morello-Frosch: As someone who teaches undergraduates in the field of environmental and public health, I think the topic needs to be explored through a human rights lens to make important connections between sustainability, social equity and human health.

Santoyo: What is the most important message you try to relay to your students?

Morello-Frosch: If you want to make a difference as an environmental health researcher, always strive to improve the rigor, relevance and reach of your scientific work.  Rigor requires students to challenge themselves and subject their work to ongoing peer-review from diverse stakeholders, including other researchers, regulatory scientists and affected communities. Relevance requires ongoing reflection about the nature and purpose of the scientific questions we seek to answer. Reach requires us to engage diverse audiences to disseminate the results of our scientific work and ensure that it is leveraged to improve community health and well-being.

Santoyo: Are there any difficulties teaching your subject matter?

Morello-Frosh: Students can get easily overwhelmed and paralyzed by the magnitude of the environmental and social justice problems we face.  I try to address that by encouraging a lot of critical thinking about how we take steps to push for progressive social change and also provide case studies of successful advocacy and activism.

The second challenge is teaching students to communicate and write about complex scientific and social justice issues in ways that resonate with diverse audiences.  This means giving them opportunities write research papers, but also be able to write for media sources in the form of op-eds.  Op-eds are a critical tool for reaching decision-makers and the broader public, and they encourage students to develop and frame arguments about technical issues in language appropriate to policy settings and public venues outside of academia.

Santoyo: Why should people think about the environment when they think about human rights? 

Morello-Frosh: Diminishing environmental resources will increase the polarization between the powerful and the powerless, which in turn will threaten human rights.

Santoyo: Do you think climate change is a rights issue?

Morello-Frosch: Absolutely. I think climate change has traditionally been viewed as a human rights issue in an international context; when we examine the disproportionate impacts of climate change on developing countries, island nations and communities in the circumpolar north, who are literally struggling for survival in the face of warming temperatures and rising sea levels, for example.

More recently, however, we are beginning to examine the question of climate justice within the United States through the lens of what my colleagues and I call the “Climate Gap” — the often hidden and unequal harm that climate change is already causing people of color and the poor. Extreme weather events such as heat waves, droughts and floods as well as increased air pollution and higher prices for basic necessities, such as food, energy, and water will disproportionately impact people of color and the poor.

For example, African Americans in Los Angeles are twice as likely to die from a heat wave as other residents, and the additional costs for air conditioning during heat waves are challenging or unattainable for the poor.

 Santoyo: How does the environment intersect with social justice issues in the US?

Morello-Frosch: Despite significant victories over the last 50 years, racism and social inequity remain major fault lines in American life. These forces shape the distribution not only of power and economic resources, but environmental quality as well.  Social inequality and racial discrimination continue to concentrate environmental burdens, including power plants, freeways and chemical manufacturing facilities, in certain neighborhoods, towns and regions. There are places such as Richmond, Calif., where children suffer disproportionately from asthma, in part because of poor housing quality and poverty as well as multiple sources of air pollution, including refineries, ports, freeways and rail yards. And places like California’s San Joaquin Valley, where farm workers drink water so contaminated with nitrates and other pollutants that they must spend a large part of their paltry income on bottled water.