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New Office of Environmental Justice Announced

Client Alert

The profound impacts of climate change, combined with environmental and industrial pollutions, have led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish the Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ). The creation of OEJ aligns with President Biden’s Executive Order Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. The OEJ will be led by Sharunda Buchanan, a former official for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and will target disadvantaged communities around the country in hopes of improving the health of those populations and preventing future harm.  

Climate change impacts the physical and mental health of all persons but is especially critical to those populations that have been discriminated against socially or economically. Communities that are of most concern to OEJ are those composed of low-income families and communities of color since they continue to suffer disproportionally from industrial pollution, agricultural practices, detrimental land use decisions, and negative impacts of transportation. Historically, communities of low socio-economic status are at a greater risk for health concerns and cannot prepare respond or recover from health threats, most likely due to a lack of available resources in the communities and access to care. Likewise, these same, disadvantaged communities cannot prepare, respond, or recover from climate threats because environmental justice issues are inevitable to health issues. Things like geographical location, occupation, pre-existing illness, indigenous communities, immigrants and non-English speaking residents are factors that put these communities at a greater risk for environmental injustice and discrimination. 

A specific concern for the low-income communities and communities of color is the high risk for lead exposure and inadequate wastewater treatment. Lead exposure is especially dangerous to children under 6 years of age because they are still growing rapidly, and their brains are quickly developing. High levels of lead exposure and lead poisoning have been linked to slowed physical growth and brain development. These lifelong impacts cannot be reversed and there is no cure for lead poisoning, which is why prevention is so important. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has educational tools to identify sources of lead exposure, like paint, soil, and drinking water. Children who are most at-risk for lead exposure are those who live in houses built before 1978 and those who live near industries known for releasing lead into the air. Mostly, the responsibility to protect children from lead exposure has fallen on the shoulders of the families and communities. There are tests that can be performed to determine the specific level of lead found in the drinking water and various federal programs to remove the lead from the household, but these resources are difficult for families to access since they must coordinate the test and the renovations with a third-party. But with the creation of the OEJ, the responsibility to help lower the risks of lead exposure has shifted, as the OEJ has been tasked with improving safe drinking water and eliminating excessive pollution and environmental hazards. 

To learn more about the OEJ, visit: The Office of Environmental Justice (OEJ) | 

To learn more about lead poisoning and ways to decrease your risk of exposure, visit: Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program | CDC. 

If you have any additional questions, please reach out to BMD Attorney Kate Hickner at