A stretch of the California State Route 99 corridor in the San Joaquin Valley is shown busy with pollution causing farm equipment, trucks and cars in Madera, California. AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Passengers line up for a bullet train at a platform in Tokyo Station.
    Transportation

    The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations

    The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.

  2. Transportation

    Spain Wants to Ban Cars in Dozens of Cities, and the Public’s on Board

    As Madrid bans cars in the city center, the national government plans to do the same in more than 100 other places. A new survey suggests broad support across the country.

  3. A photo of the Vianden castle rising above the tree-covered Ardennes hills in northern Luxembourg
    Equity

    Luxembourg’s New Deal: Free Transit and Legal Weed

    It’s not just public transit: The Grand Duchy’s progressive new government also raised the minimum wage and gave everyone two extra days off.

  4. The dramatic, triangular National Australia Bank building in Melbourne's Docklands.
    Environment

    Is ‘Climate-Positive’ Design Possible?

    Advocates say we could design city buildings and neighborhoods that cancel out more carbon than they emit, with the right policies and mindset.

  5. A vegetable farm next to high-rise apartments in Hong Kong.
    Design

    Just How Much of the World Is Urban?

    Experts at the European Commission assess the world as more urban than experts at the United Nations or New York University do. We need to resolve this debate.