Little progress has been made to advance U.S. federal policy responses to growing scientific findings about cumulative environmental health impacts and risks, which also show that many low income and racial and ethnic minority populations bear a disproportionate share of multiple environmental burdens. Recent scholarship points to a "standard narrative" by which policy makers rationalize their slow efforts on environmental justice because of perceived lack of data and analytical tools. Using a social constructivist approach, ethnographic research methods, and content analysis, we examined the social context of policy challenges related to cumulative risks and impacts in the state of Maryland between 2014 and 2016. We identified three frames about cumulative impacts as a health issue through which conflicts over such policy reforms materialize and are sustained: (a) perceptions of evidence, (b) interpretations of social justice, and (c) expectations of authoritative bodies. Our findings illustrate that policy impasse over cumulative impacts is highly dependent on how policy-relevant actors come to frame issues around legislating cumulative impacts, rather than the "standard narrative" of external constraints. Frame analysis may provide us with more robust understandings of policy processes to address cumulative risks and impacts and the social forces that create health policy change.
Keywords: US; cumulative risk; environmental justice; ethnographic research; framing theory; health disparities; public policy.