Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Their neighborhoods are most exposed to cancer-causing air toxins.
Contaminated water, dry wells, polluted air, no groceries or doctors for miles: As CityLab has chronicled before, the list of health hazards that poor, unincorporated communities of color in California’s San Joaquin Valley live with goes on and on.
Yet stark environmental injustice is hardly limited to California. All over the United States, those who live amid the highest levels cancerous air toxins are disadvantaged Latino immigrants who don’t speak English.
In a new paper in Social Science Research, Raoul Liévanos, assistant professor of sociology at Washington State University*, mapped patterns of cumulative cancer risk connected to air toxins across U.S. Census tracts. (The EPA determines the connection to cancer risk and these toxins, which come largely from vehicle and industrial emissions.)
Liévanos essentially overlaid that map with many demographic variables, including race, employment status, immigrant status, and income, as well as population density, percent of the population employed in toxin-heavy manufacturing, and the age and value of housing stock.
All told, poor, non-English speaking Latino immigrants were the strongest demographic predictor for the presence of cancerous air toxins. Poor, African-American communities were next, and following that were poor, non-English speaking Asian/Pacific Islander immigrants.
As the map shows, most hotspots of harmful air pollution are in the Northeast and in California. Though not all do, many of these hotspots fall within metropolitan areas. In fact, Liévanos found that poor Latino immigrant neighborhoods have a one-in-three likelihood of being situated in an area where concentrations of air toxins are high.
Like lack of access to safe drinking water, exposure to unbreathable air can be linked to short-sighted, even discriminatory land-use planning. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, for example, unaffordability and discriminatory real estate practices have forced poor people of color to settle on the outskirts of larger cities, where they’re often more exposed to emissions from industrial land uses or nearby highways.
Land-use reform is a massive, necessary undertaking to redress the health hazards these communities face. Liévanos says there are smaller steps to be taken in the interim.
“If we now know that two of the most likely predictors of neighborhood proximity to a toxic air hotspot are … linguistic ability and immigrant status, then we start asking more nuanced questions about the role those factors play in creating such neighborhood vulnerabilities and how warning systems can be created to mitigate neighborhood exposures to air toxics,” he told Washington State University. “For example, we could assess what languages are being used to disseminate health advisories. Are they only in English? Do we need to put them in Spanish?”
Yes—though for some communities, so much more must be done.
*A previous version of this post incorrectly referred to Mr. Liévanos as a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.