Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Race, more than income, is strongly linked to living near pollutants of all kinds.
The people of the San Joaquin Valley are feeling some of the worst health effects of California’s drought. The lack of moisture has exacerbated existing air-quality problems in the state’s agricultural heartland, affecting those suffering from asthma—which could be up to nearly a quarter of the population. Nitrate levels from agricultural runoff are creeping up in the groundwater supplies of many communities, leaving what little water is left undrinkable.
Who are these hard-hit people? They are mostly poor and non-white. And with or without drought, California’s environmental hazards are disproportionately shouldered by people of color. That’s what researchers at UC Berkeley and the California EPA have found, using an EPA tool that measures multiple “pollution burdens”—such as pesticide exposure, hazardous waste, traffic density, and water contamination—as well as population characteristics for all of California’s ZIP codes. It pops out a “cumulative impact score” for each area.
Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the study found staggering results: Hispanics were 6.2 times more likely than whites to live in the most affected zip codes. African Americans were 5.8 times more likely. Native Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and multiracial individuals also faced higher odds than whites. Statewide, the San Joaquin Valley and the Greater Los Angeles area had the most zip codes in the top 10 percent of worst scoring places.
It’s not news that people of color in general face more environmental health hazards than whites. That’s largely why the environmental justice movement exists. But this study looks at multiple environmental factors at once, as well as indicators of vulnerability in populations such as age, income, and education level. Those are all factors that “can lead to conditions that increase levels of chronic psychosocial stress that weaken the body’s ability to defend against external challenges,” the study’s authors write.
“Still, it is surprising to see such a consistent and stark disparity by race when it comes to the burden of environmental health hazards,” lead author and UC Berkeley Energy and Resources Group PhD student Lara Cushing said in a press release. “It was a bigger factor than income."
Hopefully, these findings can be used to help regulators and policy makers target the right communities when it comes to improving environmental health conditions. Amidst the state’s historic drought, that’s never been so important.