Environmental justice is a concept that addresses in a cross-cutting and integrative manner the physical and social health issues related to the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens among populations, particularly in degraded and hazardous physical environments occupied by minority or disadvantaged populations.

The definition of health adopted by the committee is that of the Constitution of the World Health Organization (1986), which defines health as ''a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Although the health of the individual is important, much of the attention in this report focuses on what is referred to as communities of concern. Communities in this sense consist of groups of individuals who live, and often work, in specific neighborhoods or regions. In this report, the phrase communities of concern refers to communities that have or that are suspected of having disproportionately high levels of exposure to environmental stressors. The committee uses the term stressors to describe a broad range of factors that can influence human health, such as chemicals, biologics, allergens, and traditional toxicants, but it also includes light, noise, odors, and particulate matter, among others. The populations of communities of concern may also be characterized as having limited access to health care and education, being politically disenfranchised, being of low socioeconomic status, and belonging to a racial or ethnic minority group. A focus on the health of communities involves a public health perspective, defined in a 1988 report by the Institute of Medicine's (IOM's) Committee on the Future of Public Health as "organized community efforts aimed at the prevention of disease and promotion of health" (Institute of Medicine, 1988a, p. 41).

The committee defined the environment to include all places where people live, work, and play. This definition highlights the often-overlooked relationship between environmental and occupational health. Environmental health, as defined by a previous IOM report (Institute of Medicine, 1995b), is "freedom from illness or injury related to exposure to toxic agents and other environmental conditions that are potentially detrimental to human health" (p. 15). Occupational health and safety focus on the environmental conditions in the workplace. Given that low-income and minority workers in the United States are disproportionately employed in occupations with higher levels of exposure to health hazards (Frumkin and Walker, 1997) and that work-related illnesses occur in these groups at disproportionately higher rates, the relationship between environmental or occupational health and environmental justice becomes highly pertinent. Finally, the committee adopts the definition of environmental medicine as "diagnosing and caring for people exposed to … hazards in their homes, communities, and workplaces" (Institute of Medicine, 1995a, p. 8).

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