Latino Health and the Environment

With the beginning of another election season, pollsters and pundits are once again talking about the “Latino

vote,” and with good reason. The rapidly growing Latino community now numbers more than 38 million—some 13% of the U.S. population. But while they are courted by politicians and targeted by advertisers, Latinos as a group are struggling to achieve a measure of health and environmental quality comparable with non-Hispanic white Americans.


Environmental exposures are significant factors in the health of many Hispanic Americans. Latinos, especially recent immigrants and migrant workers, often work or live in conditions or areas that expose them to more environmental hazards than their white counterparts and thus, are more unhealthy than other populations.

These exposures affect the health of adults but are especially important for children. A 2002 assessment by

the Latino Consortium of the American Academy of Pediatrics Center for Child Health Research (a panel of 13 medical experts) identified a number of concerns: Latino children have “disproportionately greater exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollutants, hazardous waste sites, pesticides, lead, and mercury, which may place them at greater risk for morbidity  and even premature death from asthma, lead poisoning, behavioral and development

problems, and cancer.”


Incidence and prevalence rates of type II diabetes are rapidly rising among Latinos—Hispanics account for 31% of

all diabetic cases in California.


Air quality and asthma are particular concerns in many Latino communities. Asthma is a well-studied example of a

chronic disease that is more prevalent in Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans, than in other Americans. One study found that Hispanic ethnicity was a risk factor for having asthma, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, active smoking in the home, and maternal age.


Another study that controlled for socioeconomic status and area of residence found that Hispanic children’s risk

of developing asthma was 2.5 times greater than whites. Puerto Rican children in particular had the highest prevalence of active asthma—(11%) of any US ethnic/racial group—compared to blacks (6%) and whites (3%). According to a recent study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Puerto Ricans also have higher asthma death rates compared with other groups.


Although there may be many reasons for these disparities, air pollution is surely among them. It is estimated that 25 million Latinos live in counties that violate clean air standards, while 36% of the Latino population lives within 30 miles of a power plant—the distance within which the maximum effects of the smokestack plume are expected to occur.


In Los Angeles, Latinos are twice as likely to live near mobile source pollution, which accounts for an estimated 90% of all air contaminants. In a city with the most congested freeway system in America (for the seventeenth straight year), Los Angeles planners are strengthening efforts to double-deck and/or widen the most diesel-truck heavy freeway in California: the I-710 Long Beach Freeway.


The Long Beach Freeway runs eighteen miles from the Port of Los Angeles/ Long Beach, the third largest port complex in the world, to the Pomona 60 Freeway in unincorporated East Los Angeles, the most freeway congested

community in America. Over 34,000 trucks saturate the freeway everyday; non-diesel vehicular traffic adds another

million vehicles daily.


Expansion efforts could result in the removal of 700 homes and up to 259 businesses along the corridor. Up to

10,800 people could be directly affected, of which 10,070 are people of color (of which 95% are Latino), by planners’ efforts to increase diesel truck traffic. Diesel trucks spew exhaust containing over 450 chemicals and 40 known carcinogens. The planners’ proposal increases this traffic to 94,000 diesel truck trips a day.


Before expansion efforts made headline news, PSR-LA played an important role in forcing planners to address public health issues, sustainable alternatives, and meaningful public participation. Spearheading a coalition of community groups and activists living along the corridor, PSR-LA is devoted to ensuring environmental justice and preventing Los Angeles from becoming the largest warehouse and distribution center in the world in—lieu of a healthy community.

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