Date of Award

January 2024

Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Public Health (MPH)


School of Public Health

First Advisor

Robert Dubrow

Second Advisor

Nicole Deziel


Background:Globalization has spurred substantial growth in international maritime trade, with shipping emerging as the most efficient mode for transporting large quantities of goods. This growth comes at an environmental cost. Maritime transport contributes to local air pollution, with pollutants such as particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), black carbon, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone (O3), and carbon monoxide (CO) disproportionately affecting coastal and port communities. Despite extensive evidence of the adverse health effects of these pollutants, comprehensive analyses of distributive environmental justice related to port communities remain scarce, prompting this study's investigation into the sociodemographic and health characteristics of such communities in the United States.

Methods:The ten largest U.S. ports were identified and mapped using ArcGIS Pro software. A five-kilometer buffer around port edges was used to identify port-adjacent census tracts (“port tracts”). Census tracts surrounding port tracts were identified as “non-port tracts.” Sociodemographic, environmental, and health outcome variables were obtained from various sources including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the White House Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST). Data analysis, conducted using R Statistical Software, included t-tests and chi-square tests to examine differences between port and non-port tract populations by state.

Results:The ten largest ports were distributed across California, Louisiana, New York/New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia, with 942 port census tracts and 1,061 non-port census tracts identified. Port tracts had significantly higher population densities compared to non-port tracts. Additionally, port tracts showed significantly higher levels of diesel particulate matter, asthma prevalence, diabetes prevalence, lack of healthcare coverage, and lower life expectancy compared to non-port tracts. Port tracts had significantly higher percentages of Black and Hispanic/Latino residents, lower educational attainment, higher linguistic isolation, lower median income, higher poverty levels, higher percent of residents receiving public assistance, and higher unemployment rates. Lastly, port tracts also exhibited higher social vulnerability rankings (63.4 versus 54.8 percent, p<0.001) and were more disadvantaged (56.3 versus 39.5 percent, p<0.001) compared to non-port tracts.

Discussion:This study provides insights into the environmental justice implications of large U.S. maritime ports, highlighting disparities in population density, air pollution, health outcomes, and sociodemographic characteristics between port-adjacent and non-port communities. The findings align with existing research on the disproportionate burden of port pollution on marginalized communities and the broader environmental justice literature regarding industrial facility siting. Further quantitative and qualitative analyses are warranted to explore causal relationships, identify key indicators of difference between port and non-port communities, and understand the lived experiences of affected communities. Moving forward, policymakers must engage with frontline communities to develop equitable strategies for maritime decarbonization and pollution mitigation, ensuring a path toward environmental justice both domestically and globally.


This is an Open Access Thesis.

Open Access

This Article is Open Access