People From This Group Breathe the Most Toxic Air in the United States
Dealing with prejudice and a lack of access to jobs, health care, or high-quality schools is tough enough for low-income, non-English-speaking Latino immigrants in the United States. Now, new research reveals that they’re also more likely to be regularly exposed to toxic, cancer-causing air pollutants than any other racial or ethnic group—and folks who live in California and the Northeast are the worst off.
That’s the sobering finding of a study to be published in the November issue of the journal Social Science Research. Raoul Liévanos, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington State University, analyzed data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on cancer risk connected to air pollution, along with U.S. census tract demographic data. He found that non-English-speaking Latino immigrants have a one-in-three chance of living in a neighborhood where they’re breathing in high levels of toxic chemicals such as ozone, benzene, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons.
“Past research conclusively shows a correlation between race, socioeconomic status, and proximity to air toxic emissions at the neighborhood level,” Liévanos said in a statement. “The component I am adding to the discussion is that neighborhoods composed of nonwhite, economically disadvantaged people who don’t speak English as a native language and are foreign-born are even more vulnerable to being near toxic air emissions. This is particularly the case with Latino immigrants.”
Thanks to enormous dairy and crop factory farms—and the emissions from the semis that barrel along Interstate 5—California’s San Joaquin Valley is well known for its terrible air pollution problems. But while immigrant workers picking almonds and grapes in fields across the region regularly breathe in toxins, Liévanos found that low-income, non-English-speaking Latino immigrants living in urban areas across the nation aren’t necessarily breathing cleaner air.
That’s because most of the air pollution can be blamed on vehicle exhaust, as well as toxic emissions from factories, oil refineries, and power plants—which low-income immigrants of color are more likely to live adjacent to. Folks living in heavily Latino neighborhoods close to the bustling ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, have a 60 percent greater cancer risk from diesel pollution than those living in more well-off, whiter parts of Los Angeles County.
In the Northeastern U.S., immigrants of color who move into segregated communities near urban industrial centers, such as in the heavily polluted South Bronx—also known as “Asthma Alley”—in New York City aren’t much better off.
It’s no wonder, then, that a 2014 report from the Hispanic Access Foundation found that 78 percent of Latino voters say they’re more likely to support political candidates who want to curb pollution.
Electing politicians who will advocate for cleaner air seems to be key. Liévanos wrote in an email to TakePart that his study’s findings suggest reforming land use and transportation policies can help “address the problem of residential proximity to air-toxic health risks and other forms of environmental health risks.”
His research has significant implications for environmental justice organizing too. Activists should consider “the importance of multi-racial and multi-lingual community-based organizing and outreach efforts to inform vulnerable nonwhite, low-income, and immigrant communities about their environmental health conditions,” he wrote.
Ultimately, however, “factors such as racism and anti-immigrant sentiments and policies must be changed to ensure that everyone has equal environmental protection and environmental health conditions,” wrote Liévanos.