Environmental health disparities: a framework integrating psychosocial and environmental concepts

Environ Health Perspect. 2004 Dec;112(17):1645-53. doi: 10.1289/ehp.7074.


Although it is often acknowledged that social and environmental factors interact to produce racial and ethnic environmental health disparities, it is still unclear how this occurs. Despite continued controversy, the environmental justice movement has provided some insight by suggesting that disadvantaged communities face greater likelihood of exposure to ambient hazards. The exposure-disease paradigm has long suggested that differential "vulnerability" may modify the effects of toxicants on biological systems. However, relatively little work has been done to specify whether racial and ethnic minorities may have greater vulnerability than do majority populations and, further, what these vulnerabilities may be. We suggest that psychosocial stress may be the vulnerability factor that links social conditions with environmental hazards. Psychosocial stress can lead to acute and chronic changes in the functioning of body systems (e.g., immune) and also lead directly to illness. In this article we present a multidisciplinary framework integrating these ideas. We also argue that residential segregation leads to differential experiences of community stress, exposure to pollutants, and access to community resources. When not counterbalanced by resources, stressors may lead to heightened vulnerability to environmental hazards.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Environment
  • Environmental Health*
  • Environmental Pollutants / poisoning*
  • Ethnicity
  • Hazardous Substances
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Racial Groups
  • Residence Characteristics
  • Social Class*
  • Social Conditions*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Vulnerable Populations*


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Hazardous Substances