Environmental Health Threats in the Latino Community
Pollution in the United States poses health risks for everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, language, or country of origin. A large percentage of U.S. Latinos, however, live and work in urban and agricultural areas where they face heightened danger of exposure to air pollution, unsafe drinking water, pesticides, and lead and mercury contamination. These hazards can cause serious health problems, including an increased risk of asthma and cancer; waterborne diseases such as giardiasis, hepatitis, and cholera; and neurological and developmental problems.
Specific examples of pollution threatening U.S. Latino communities include the following:
- Some 91 percent of Hispanics in the United States live in metropolitan areas, where polluted air may increase the risk of illnesses including asthma and cancer.
- One and a half million U.S. Latinos live in colonias (unincorporated communities with substandard housing) along the U.S.-Mexico border, where a lack of potable water and sewage treatment contributes to waterborne diseases such as giardiasis, hepatitis, and cholera.
- More than one-third of U.S. Latinos live in Western states, where arsenic, industrial chemicals, and fertilizer residues often contaminate local drinking water supplies.
- The great majority -- 88 percent -- of farmworkers are Latinos; they and their families face regular pesticide exposure, which can lead to increased risks of lymphoma, prostate cancer, and childhood cancers.
- Twice as many Hispanic children as non-Hispanic white children are likely to have lead in their blood at levels higher than the action level established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for risk of lead poisoning.
Despite the serious risks, government officials and some in the scientific community have largely overlooked the impact of pollution on the health of Latinos. Federal and state agencies fail to collect relevant data; few studies assess environmental health threats in Latino communities; and many government authorities, industry, farm operators, and landlords fail to provide warnings in Spanish about environmental health threats. This leaves many Hispanics without the information they need to evaluate the risks to their health from environmental contaminants at their jobs and in their neighborhoods, and even those connected to their cultural traditions.
This report helps bridge the information gap by analyzing existing data and documenting five categories of pollution exposure and the resulting health consequences that exact a heavy toll on Latinos: air quality, water quality, pesticides, mercury, and lead. These categories do not tell the whole story of pollutants threatening Latinos' health in the United States, nor does this report provide a complete picture of the environmental hazards Latinos may encounter in each category it explores. The findings presented in this report, however, underscore the urgent need for government action to identify the effects of environmental health threats on Latino communities, to inform Latinos about the health hazards they face, and to place stronger restrictions on everyday -- but hazardous -- pollutants that endanger the health and safety of millions of Americans of all ethnicities.
Air Pollution in Heavily Hispanic Areas
Approximately 66 percent of U.S. Latinos -- 25.6 million people -- live in areas that do not meet the federal government's air quality standards. These include the U.S.-Mexico border region, the Central Valley of California, and the cities of Chicago, New York, Phoenix, and Houston.
Air pollutants that stream out of power plants, vehicles, heavy machinery, and factories can lead to an increased risk of asthma, lung cancer, allergies, and chronic bronchitis and can even contribute to premature death. Air pollution takes a particular toll on pregnant women and young children, increasing the risk of complications during pregnancy and the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and cardiac defects in babies.
The following are examples of hazardous areas that have large Latino populations:
- Chicago and the surrounding area, where 800,000 Hispanics live within ten miles of two power plants estimated to contribute to 2,800 asthma attacks and 41 premature deaths every year.
- The New York City metropolitan area, where traffic congestion is the second worst in the country, where Latinos suffer the highest adult asthma rate of all ethnic groups, and where children are hospitalized for asthma at twice the national rate.
- The neighborhood of South Phoenix, where 60 percent of the population is Hispanic and where the asthma rate is higher than anywhere else in surrounding Maricopa County.
- San Diego's Barrio Logan neighborhood, where 85 percent of residents are Latino and where asthma rates are 28 percent -- four times the national average.
- California's Central Valley, where Latinos account for 30 percent of the population and where air pollution has been linked with an increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations for respiratory conditions.
Drinking Water Contamination in Latino Communities
Thousands of U.S. residents become ill each year from drinking water contaminated with human and animal waste, pesticides, and heavy metals such as arsenic and lead. This problem is especially prevalent along the U.S.-Mexico border, where some communities lack access to sanitary sewers, and in southern and western states, where drinking water sources are polluted with arsenic and nitrates. Nor are Latinos living in urban areas with large-scale drinking water distribution systems free from worry about water quality. Although some cities have excellent tap water, several with large Latino populations -- such as Albuquerque, Fresno, and San Francisco -- have water that is sufficiently contaminated to pose health risks to vulnerable people.
Bacteria or parasites in drinking water pose health risks of waterborne diseases, which some studies estimate to affect 7 million or more people each year, 560,000 of them severe cases. Nationwide, it is not known what percentage of those affected by waterborne diseases are Latinos, but data for Los Angeles County in 2000 and New York County in 2001 demonstrate that Hispanics have higher rates for giardiasis and cryptosporidiosis, respectively, than other ethnic groups. The health effects for many waterborne diseases include diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting -- and some waterborne diseases such as cholera and those caused by E. coli, for example, can be fatal to humans.
Bacteria and parasites are not the only contaminants in drinking water that cause illness. Arsenic, which occurs naturally in some rocks that dissolve into water supplies, is known to cause cancer of the bladder, lung, and skin and is suspected to cause cancers of the liver and kidney. Perchlorate, a component of rocket fuels and explosives, seeps into the drinking water supply, where it then exposes people to risks of diminished levels of thyroid hormone -- a hormone essential for normal brain development in infants and fetuses. And nitrates found in fertilizers and human and animal feces wash into drinking water sources, where they can interfere with the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the brain and vital organs.
Water quality problems that endanger Latino communities include the following:
- Colonias along the U.S.-Mexico border lack potable water and adequate wastewater treatment, putting residents at risk of contracting waterborne diseases such as giardiasis, hepatitis, and cholera.
- Arizona's Maricopa County and much of Southern California, both heavily Hispanic areas, take drinking water from the Colorado River, which has been contaminated with perchlorate, a chemical that harms the thyroid and may cause cancer.
- Officials in California have closed approximately 800 wells because of high levels of nitrates (nitrogen products from fertilizers, human feces, and animal manure), which interfere with the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the brain and vital organs and can cause disease and death among infants.
Pesticide Exposure at Work and at Home
Most U.S. farmworkers (88 percent) are Latino. Many of these men and women are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides. Not only are they exposed to pesticides at work, but also they and their families are exposed off the job when pesticides drift through the air, settle in their drinking water, and cling to their clothes and food.
The effects of exposure to some pesticides include skin rashes, burning eyes, cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and difficulty breathing. Pesticide exposure may also increase the risk of certain cancers as well as miscarriages and birth defects. Children are particularly susceptible to these harmful chemicals. Many children of farmworkers are exposed to pesticides daily.
Evidence of the vulnerability of farmworkers and their families to pesticide exposures abounds. Here are examples:
- Hispanics employed as farmworkers in California were found to have a 59 to 69 percent greater risk of stomach, cervical, and uterine cancer, and of some leukemias, compared with other Hispanics in the state.
- Scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle tested children of farmworkers who live in Douglas and Chelan counties in Washington state and found that more than half were exposed during the spraying season to pesticide levels that exceeded federal safety levels, even though the children did not work in the fields.
- Twenty-four farmworkers in Bakersfield, California, were taken to hospitals in May 2004 after pesticides sprayed on a nearby potato farm drifted through the air.
Despite the great potential for pesticide exposure, workers who apply pesticides in the field often do not have or use proper safety equipment. Even when safety equipment is available, many workers do not receive training in its use. Another contributing factor in workers' exposure to pesticides is the lack of water for washing off pesticide residues. According to a U.S. Department of Labor survey, water for washing is unavailable in 16 percent of all fields, lengthening the time that workers spend in contact with pesticide residues and thus increasing the danger of pesticide-related illnesses.
Pesticide exposure is not limited to farmworkers. Americans are exposed to pesticides on a daily basis, and some studies have found a high rate of pesticide use in Latino households. According to a study of pesticide exposure among pregnant women in New York City, Latinas were more likely than non-Hispanic white women to report that they or a member of their household had used pesticides at home during their pregnancy. Latinos living in public housing may be especially exposed. In New York City, for example, almost 190,000 Latinos living in public housing may be exposed to pesticides through routine exterminations.
Lead Poisoning in Latino Children
Although blood lead levels have decreased steadily among the U.S. population as a whole since lead was banned in gasoline and paint in the 1970s, Hispanic children in general are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white children to have blood lead levels above the threshold established by the CDC for risk of lead poisoning.
Other studies conducted in U.S. cities with large Hispanic populations have suggested that Latino children are at significant risk from lead poisoning. In Arizona in 2002, 77 percent of children diagnosed with lead poisoning were Latinos, whereas the total percentage of Latinos in the state is only 25.3 percent. And in San Bernardino County, California, 65 percent of lead-poisoned children were Hispanic, whereas the total Hispanic population in the county is 39.2 percent.
In children, lead is known to cause neurological problems even at tiny doses. Most notably, lead has been associated with a decline in IQ and with learning disabilities, hyperactive behavior, violence, and an increase in antisocial behavior. In adults, lead has been linked to neurological problems, high blood pressure, and kidney problems.
The principal source of lead exposure for children is lead-contaminated dust (from lead-based paint), but other sources may have particular implications for Latinos. One such source is lead-glazed pottery, which some tourists and immigrants continue to bring in from Mexico and other countries. Some Latino children may also be eating lead in candy, as reported in an April 2004 Orange County Register investigative story. The article explained how lead-contaminated candies manufactured in Mexico make their way into the U.S. market.
Another factor for increased risk of childhood lead poisoning among Latino immigrants, particularly those of Mexican origin, is the use of certain folk remedies. Such traditional remedies as greta and azarcón, which may contain nearly 100 percent lead and are often used to treat stomachaches, may expose children to dangerously high lead concentrations.
The harmful effects of mercury pose another health threat to Latinos. The major ways in which Latinos are exposed to mercury are by eating mercury-contaminated fish and by using mercury in religious ceremonies, cosmetics, and folk remedies. The problem of exposure is aggravated by a lack of Spanish-language educational materials about mercury's hazards and by many states' failure to provide warnings in Spanish about mercury levels in fish caught in local waterbodies.
Mercury accumulates in the body, where it remains for many months. Although mercury exposure can cause health problems for men and women of any age, women of reproductive age and children face the greatest risk. Mercury in a pregnant woman's body can affect the developing brain of the fetus. Children, whose brains continue developing until approximately the age of seven, can develop neurological and behavioral problems and learning disabilities from exposure to mercury. A nationwide study found that on average, Latino children have higher mercury levels in their bodies compared with non-Hispanic children.
Mercury is released into the air by power plants and chemical companies, falls into water, and accumulates in fish, including the canned tuna commonly bought in stores. Tests by the Food and Drug Administration and independent organizations have shown that the mercury levels in canned white (albacore) tuna are high enough that women of reproductive age should not eat more than one can every 10 days. Yet many mothers, particularly those who receive assistance from the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, unknowingly put their children at risk by choosing tuna as an inexpensive, low-fat source of protein, because tuna (but not other types of fish or meat) is a WIC-eligible food. In 2002, for the first time, Hispanics made up the largest group of WIC participants; and according to a study in New York City, canned tuna is the most popular fish among Latinos.
Mercury-contaminated fish -- which cannot be distinguished by taste, touch, sight, or smell -- is not only purchased but also caught by recreational and subsistence anglers. Although government agencies test fish in many parts of the country, they rarely warn the Spanish-speaking community of the risks of eating contaminated fish. In New York, a study showed that Latino anglers ate more fish from contaminated waters and were less likely to be aware of health advisories than non-Latinos. A study of anglers in Santa Monica Bay found that only 58 percent of Latinos, versus 88 percent of non-Hispanics, had heard about fish advisories in their area.
Certain religious and cultural practices provide another route of exposure to mercury, which is sprinkled indoors by practitioners of Espiritismo and Santeria (religious traditions found most commonly among people of Puerto Rican and Cuban origin, respectively), and in the Voodoo and Palo traditions. Surveys in Massachusetts, New York, and Chicago found that between 19 and 44 percent of Hispanic respondents reported sometimes using mercury for magic or religious purposes. Researchers estimate that 47,000 capsules of mercury are sold per year in bot´nicas (stores that sell remedies and religious items) in New York City, and these capsules are likely to cause long-term contamination of more than 13,000 homes or apartment buildings each year. Use of mercury in an apartment building has been shown to cause elevated levels of mercury vapor in the hallways and entryway, and probably also in other apartments where mercury was not used. Toxic vapors can linger for months or even years, leading to neurological and respiratory symptoms in apartment residents.
Recommendations to Improve Environmental Health in the Latino Community
Pollution-related health problems affecting U.S. Latino communities can be reversed, but only with a concerted effort from government and industry that includes government funding for adequate data gathering and research as well as outreach to the Latino community. Following are selected recommendations aimed at improving environmental health in the Latino community; the following chapters outline other recommendations for reducing pollution and improving Latino health.
To begin addressing the problem of air pollution in Latino communities,
- The U.S. government should make funding available through the CDC for the study of asthma rates and other health effects in Latino and other minority communities affected by air pollution.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should enforce regulations that require power plants to install modern pollution controls when they make upgrades that would increase pollutant emissions. The EPA should withdraw its recent changes to these regulations.
- State health departments and environmental agencies should inform the Latino community about the general health effects of air pollution, the specific hazards posed by conditions in their community, and ways to reduce their health risks. These agencies should use Spanish media outlets to reach Latino populations.
To begin addressing the problem of poor drinking water quality in Latino communities,
Congress should increase funding for the Border Environmental Infrastructure Fund from $50 million to $100 million to build and improve drinking water systems in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
Congress should increase funding for the CDC and the EPA to track waterborne diseases in the U.S.-Mexico border region and to carry out outreach campaigns to educate residents on how to reduce exposure to microbial and chemical contaminants in the water.
The EPA should require public water systems serving an area where at least 10 percent of the population speaks Spanish as a primary language to translate consumer confidence ("right-to-know") reports into Spanish.
To begin addressing the problem of pesticide exposure in Latino communities,
The EPA should ban the most hazardous pesticides, and the EPA and various state regulatory agencies should prohibit drift-prone application methods, including the use of airplanes, to reduce acute and chronic poisonings.
The EPA should require farm owners to establish larger buffer zones during pesticide applications and to improve posting and worker-notification practices to reduce pesticide drift and pesticide residue exposures.
The EPA and various state agencies should designate farm children as a vulnerable population that must be considered and protected in all pesticide registration and tolerance decisions under federal and state law.
To begin addressing the problem of lead poisoning in Latino communities,
- Congress should allocate funding to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for expansion of the program that provides financial assistance for lead abatement and control projects in privately owned housing. Congress should also allocate funds through the Department of Health for a lead-screening program in urban, low-income housing.
- The CDC should require every state to report the results of blood lead testing, including the race or ethnicity of every child tested, to make it possible to track the progress of lead poisoning prevention programs and to identify areas where additional interventions may be needed.
To begin addressing the problem of mercury in Latino communities,
- The EPA should require power plants to install the best available technology to achieve maximum control of mercury emissions and should require prompt reduction of as much as 90 percent in mercury emissions from power plants.
- The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should require the posting of fish consumption advisories in grocery stores in both English and Spanish; state departments of health should provide fish consumption advisories in English and Spanish to public clinics.
- State health departments and departments of environmental protection should post warnings in English and Spanish about fish contamination in local waterbodies.
Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter
NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs
- Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
- Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
- NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.
- A new class of antibiotics — an exciting discovery but no substitute for antimicrobial stewardship
- posted by Carmen Cordova, 1/13/15
- New Year: NRDC Still Fighting for the Safety of our Pets and Kids
- posted by Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, 1/5/15
- More Fracking Fumes: Studies Repeatedly Find Unsafe Levels of Air Pollution Near Fracking Sites
- posted by Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, 12/16/14