Environmental Justice and Health
Concern about the impact of the environment on health has tended to focus on the physical effects of exposure to toxic and/or infectious substances. Less is known about the potential effects on health of subjective perceptions of aspects of neighbourhoods such as litter and graffiti. Such ‘street level' exposures may vary by socio-economic status, and thus may be regarded as components of environmental justice. To explore perceptions of the distribution of health promoting or damaging aspects of the environment, we developed a set of questions for inclusion in the 2004 Scottish Social Attitudes survey.
A random sample of 1,637 adults across a range of neighbourhoods in Scotland was interviewed. They were asked to rate their local area on the presence of, and perceived problems with a range of aspects of their local neighbourhood, subsequently grouped into three categories:
(i) street level incivilities e.g. litter, graffiti
(ii) large scale infrastructure e.g. phone masts and
(iii) the absence of ‘environmental goods' e.g. safe play areas for children.
For each of the three categories of perceived local environment, we examined their perceived occurrence and the extent to which they presented a problem, according to respondents' individual characteristics and neighbourhood deprivation. We then explored relationships between reported experience of each of the three categories and self-assessed health and current smoking status (after controlling for gender, age and social class).
Respondents with the highest levels of perceived street-level incivilities are almost twice as likely to report frequent feelings of anxiety and depression, and 40% more likely be a smoker, compared to those who perceive the lowest levels. Perceived absence of environmental goods was associated with increased anxiety (over twice more likely) and depression (90% more likely), and a 50% increased likelihood of being a smoker. Few associations with health were observed for perceptions of the larger scale infrastructural items.
In addition to asking respondents about the incivilities outlined above, we also asked them about less common, larger scale infrastructural items e.g. wind farm, sewage works, landfill site, open cast mine, active/disused quarry, waste incinerator, power station or mobile phone mast, and how much of a problem it would be if such items were to exist or occur in their area. We found very few differences between social groups or types of areas in the extent to which they would be worried if such things occurred in their area. It seems that, across the board, the Scottish population share the same views of what would be undesirable. The things that would bother people most were heavy traffic, sewage smells, litter and graffiti, and dumped unwanted household items. Less concern was noted for the potential presence of open cast mines or wind farms.
Ellaway A, Morris G, Curtice J, Robertson C, Allardice G, Robertson R. Associations between health and different kinds of environmental incivility: a Scotland-wide Study. Public Health 2009;123:708-13pubmed
Curtice J, Ellaway A, Robertson C, Morris G, Allardice G, Robertson R. Public attitudes and environmental justice in Scotland: a report for the Scottish Executive on research to inform the development and evaluation of environmental justice policy. Edinburgh, 2005