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How Climate Change And Pollution Harm Vulnerable Communities

Drawing on years of professional expertise in interior design, Ms. Menendez presently excels as the founder and president of Senom Design.

Executive Contributor Monserrat Menendez

Climate change is already taking a toll on human health, a toll that is likely to increase in coming decades. The relationship between risk perceptions and vulnerability to climate change’s health threats has received little attention, even though an understanding of the dynamics of adaptation among particularly susceptible populations is becoming increasingly important. We demonstrate that some people whose health will suffer the greatest harms from climate change—due to social vulnerability, health susceptibility, and exposure to hazards—already feel they are at risk.

Top view shot a community

Factors affecting exposure to chemicals

Exposure to chemicals is influenced by various factors, including gender, age, race (ethnicity), and socioeconomic status. These factors determine the level of risk and the severity of health impacts that different populations might experience. For example:


  • Gender: Biological differences can affect how chemicals are metabolized and stored in the body.

  • Age: Children and the elderly are often more vulnerable due to their developing or weakening immune systems.

  • Race (Ethnicity): Historical and systemic inequalities can result in higher exposure levels among certain racial or ethnic groups.

  • Socioeconomic status: Low-income individuals may live in areas with higher pollution levels or have limited access to healthcare.

Photos of cumulative exposure

Children's exposure to toxic chemicals

Children can be exposed to toxic chemicals in several ways, which poses significant risks to their health and development. Key exposure pathways include:


  • Pre-exposure in utero: Chemicals can cross the placenta and affect fetal development.

  • Playing with toys containing PVCs: Toys made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) can release harmful chemicals.

Children's toys

  • 'Take home' exposure: Parents working in environments with chemical use, such as construction sites, can inadvertently bring contaminants home on their clothing or skin.

External pollutants

Chronic conditions related to environmental factors


Environmental factors contribute significantly to various chronic conditions, including:


  • Asthma: Often exacerbated by poor air quality and pollutants.

  • Heart disease: Linked to long-term exposure to air pollution and other environmental toxins.

  • Diabetes: Certain chemicals can disrupt metabolic processes, increasing the risk.

  • Cancer: Exposure to carcinogens in the environment can increase cancer risk.

Higher risk populations

Communities experiencing high poverty levels and living in substandard housing are at a higher risk of health effects from chemical exposure. Poor housing conditions can include structural damage, exposure to mold, and the presence of lead paint, all of which contribute to adverse health outcomes.

Three boys swimming in the dirty water

Factors increasing asthma risk in high-risk children

Several factors can increase the risk of asthma in children living in high-risk environments, including:


  • Poorly maintained housing: Issues like peeling lead paint can worsen respiratory conditions.

Peeling paint

  • Cigarette smoke: Secondhand smoke is a known trigger for asthma.

A man smoking in car with his daughter

  • Mold, pests, and pest control measures: Mold spores and chemicals used for pest control can exacerbate asthma symptoms.

Photo of molds

Effective communities experience change

Bringing about significant change in communities, especially those vulnerable to environmental health risks, requires action at the policy level. Policy changes can address systemic issues and create sustainable improvements in living conditions and health outcomes.

Hand holding a money bag

Environmental impact of building materials

Building materials contribute to environmental degradation in several ways. Notably:

  • Raw material extraction: Logging and mining for building materials can lead to deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

raw material extraction


  • Transportation: Moving building materials using fossil fuels adds to climate change through greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Waste disposal: Contaminants can be released during the disposal process, polluting land and water.


Historical and structural issues affecting communities of color

Communities of color have historically faced structural issues that negatively impact their health, including:


  • Redlining: Restrictive housing policies forced these communities to live in areas with higher pollution levels.

  • Employment restrictions: Limited job opportunities often confined individuals to hazardous professions.

  • Proximity to industrial pollution: Many communities of color are located near industrial areas with higher levels of environmental contaminants.


Approaches for designers to support vulnerable communities

Designers aiming to create positive change for vulnerable communities should:


  • Design collaboratively: Engage with community members to incorporate their input and ideas.

  • Address inequities: Be mindful of navigating power, income, race, and class disparities.

  • Consider proximity to power: Understand how location and access to resources affect community well-being.


As climate change health impacts and the need for adaptive public health responses increase, so too will the need to assist populations of increased vulnerability.

Understanding how these groups interpret risks is more important than ever. We note that the effect sizes for indicators of vulnerability are comparatively small compared to those variables that receive more research interest in climate change social science. This suggests that their practical relevance may be limited, but surveys and public health communication often are challenged to reach individuals who are at increased vulnerability, so even a small effect may have important policy implications.

By considering these factors, designers and policymakers can work together to create healthier, more equitable environments for all populations.

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Monserrat Menendez, Interior Designer

Drawing on years of professional expertise in interior design, Ms. Menendez presently excels as the founder and president of Senom Design. Through Senom, she aims to make projects not only beautiful, but sustainable, healthy, and approachable. Similarly, she specializes in turnkey rentals and property staging, custom product design, pre-construction, and more working with Iconic Modern Home in the Hamptons, New York City and Connecticut.



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