A teenage girl walks around the track of a park in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

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.

(Social Science Research)

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a woman on a SkyTrain car its way to the airport in Vancouver, British Columbia.
    Transportation

    In the City That Ride-Hailing Forgot, Change Is Coming

    Fears of congestion and a powerful taxi lobby have long kept ride-hailing apps out of this transit-friendly British Columbia city. That’s about to change.  

  2. A photo of a homeless man on the streets of Los Angeles, California
    Equity

    L.A. Wanted to Use This Building as a Shelter. Now Trump Does Too.

    Los Angeles homeless providers were rebuffed when they asked to use the Hawthorne Federal Building, which the White House is eyeing to relocate Skid Row residents.

  3. A man rides an electric scooter in Los Angeles.
    Perspective

    Why Do City Dwellers Love to Hate Scooters?

    Electric scooters draw a lot of hate, but if supported well by cities, they have the potential to provide a widespread and beneficial mode of transportation.

  4. Life

    American Migration Patterns Should Terrify the GOP

    Millennial movers have hastened the growth of left-leaning metros in southern red states such as Texas, Arizona, and Georgia. It could be the biggest political story of the 2020s.

  5. Life

    Dublin Is Changing, and Locals Hate It

    The recent loss of popular murals and local pubs is fueling a deeper angst over mass tourism, redevelopment and urban transformation in the Irish capital.

×