Dear EarthTalk: How is it that Latino communities are among those hardest hit by air pollution?
— Miguel Aragones, Los Angeles, CA
Latinos are indeed among the U.S. ethnic groups hardest hit by air pollution. A recent report from the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change (NLCCC), Center for American Progress, National Resources Defense Council and National Wildlife Federation found that Latinos face a disproportionately large air pollution risk than even other minority groups. According to the report, “U.S. Latinos and Air Pollution: A Call to Action,” Latinos face increased health care costs, more lost days at school and work, and a shorter life expectancy due to increased exposure to air pollution.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 26.6 percent of U.S. Hispanics live in counties that violate the federal government’s 24-hour standards for fine particulate matter, the greatest percentage of any ethnic group. Meanwhile, 48.4 percent of Hispanics live in counties that frequently violated eight-hour ground-level ozone standards.
According to the National Coalition of Hispanic Health & Human Services Organizations (COSSMHO), 80 percent of U.S. Latinos (compared with 65 percent of non-Hispanic U.S. blacks and 57 percent of non-Hispanic U.S. whites) live in so-called “non-attainment” areas where ambient air quality is worse than what the federal government considers safe. “Although Hispanics in general live as long as or longer than non-Hispanic whites, what morbidity data are available reveal that the quality of that life is severely impaired by a variety of chronic conditions, such as asthma,” adds the coalition.
Meanwhile, another recent report from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) found that seven out of 10 Hispanic Americans face air pollution threats some 16 percent greater overall than the overall U.S. population. “The increased exposure to air pollution makes Latino families more vulnerable to health problems associated with air pollutants such as low birth weight and asthma attacks,” stated the report. “Factors such as poverty, language barriers and lack of access to health care increase the danger.”
In June 2011, 14 Latino groups from California, Texas and other states joined together to urge President Obama to bring permissible levels of ground-level ozone—a key component in the formation of smog—down to below 70 parts per billion. Under George W. Bush, the limit was lowered from 85 to 75 parts per billion, but environmentalists maintain that the limit must be even lower to reduce respiratory and related illnesses in densely populated, largely minority urban areas already hardest hit by pollution.
But in September 2011 the Obama administration cited economic concerns in announcing that it would leave the ozone standard as is for now. Lowering it further at this point, the White House argued, would cost American businesses and the federal government billions to upgrade or retrofit industrial facilities with pollution scrubbing equipment and other technologies. The administration hinted it would revisit the topic once the economy improves, but in the meantime those living in urban areas with unsafe amounts of air pollution should check daily air quality forecasts before going outside for extended periods. The federal government’s Airnow.gov website offers daily air quality reports across 300+ urban areas from coast-to-coast, and also provides links to more detailed state and local air quality information sources.