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Hidden Danger: Environmental Health Threats in the Latino Community

Q: Why write a report specifically on environmental health threats to the Latino community? Aren't all Americans harmed by environmental pollution?

Pollution in the United States poses health risks for everyone, regardless or race, ethnicity, language, or country of origin. Latinos, however, often are more vulnerable because of where they live and where they work.

A large percentage of U.S. Latinos live and work in urban and agricultural areas, where risks of exposure to air pollution, unsafe drinking water, pesticides, and lead and mercury contamination is highest. 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 in children.

For example, 88 percent of all farmworkers in the United States are Latino. Farmworkers and their families are exposed to dangerous pesticides on and off the job. Exposure to pollution, combined with weak or nonexistent efforts to inform Latinos about and protect them from associated health hazards, contributes to a serious and growing health problem.

Q: What other factors - besides where Latinos live - explain the disproportionate impact of pollution on the Latino community?

A number of factors hamper Latinos' abilities to protect themselves, including:

  • Inadequate scientific data about environmental health threats in largely Latino communities;
  • Inadequate government action and protection of these communities;
  • Inadequate access to proper medical care; and
  • Inadequate accessible information in Spanish.

Q: What can we do 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.


Q: Where do these pollutants come from and what health problems do they cause?

Air pollutants from power plants, vehicles, heavy machinery and factories increase the 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 pregnancy complications and the risk or premature birth, low birth weight and cardiac defects.

Q: How many Latinos in the United States are threatened by polluted air?

Approximately 66 percent of U.S. Latinos - 25.6 million - live in areas that do not meet federal clean air standards. These include the U.S.-Mexico border region, the Central Valley of California, and the cities of Chicago, New York, Phoenix and Houston.


Q: Where do these pollutants come from and what health problems do they cause?

Bacteria or parasites in drinking water pose health risks of waterborne diseases. The health effects for many waterborne diseases include diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting - and some such as cholera and those caused by E. coli can be fatal to humans. In addition, other contaminants also pose problems: arsenic can cause certain types of cancer; perchlorate exposes people to risks of diminished levels of thyroid hormone which is essential for normal brain development in infants and fetuses; and nitrates can interfere with the blood's ability to carry oxygen to the brain and vital organs.

Q: Where are the major Latino communities with the worst drinking water pollution problems in the United States?

Tens of thousands of U.S. residents become ill each year from drinking contaminated drinking water. This is an especially serious problem along the U.S.-Mexico border where some communities lack access to sanitary sewers and 12 percent of the population lack access to potable water, and in Southern and Western states where drinking water sources are polluted with arsenic and nitrates. Some cities with large Latino populations - such as Albuquerque, Fresno and San Francisco - have water that is sufficiently contaminated to pose health risks to children and people with weakened immune systems.


Q: Where do these pollutants come from and what health problems do they cause?

Americans are exposed to pesticides on a daily basis. These toxic chemicals are regularly used in agricultural work and also at home. Pesticide exposure can cause skin rashes, burning eyes, coughs, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and breathing problems. Pesticide exposure also may increase the risk of certain cancers, as well as miscarriages and birth defects. Children are particularly susceptible to these harmful chemicals and many are heavily exposed to pesticides even when they don't work in the fields.

Q: Which communities are the most vulnerable to public health threats by pesticides?

Communities where farmworkers live and work. Approximately 88 percent of U.S. farmworkers are Latino and many of these men and women are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides. They are exposed not only at work, however. Pesticides drift through the air and settle in their drinking water and food, and on their clothing. Meanwhile, workers who apply these chemicals in the field often do not have the proper training and safety equipment, or adequate washing facilities that would protect them.


Q: Where does lead pollution come from and what health problems does it cause?

The principal source of lead exposure for children is lead-contaminated dust from lead-based paint. Lead also is found in lead-glazed pottery, which some tourists and immigrants bring into the country from Mexico and elsewhere. Some Latino children also may be eating lead in candy, which is produced outside the United States. Lead is known to cause neurological problems in children, even at tiny doses. Most notably, lead has been associated with lower IQs, learning disabilities, hyperactive behavior, violence and antisocial behavior.

Q: Where are U.S. Latinos most threatened by lead poisoning?

Nationwide, Latino children are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white children to have blood lead levels above the threshold established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for risk of lead poisoning. Recent studies in Arizona and San Bernardino County, California, suggest that Latino children face a significantly elevated risk from lead poisoning compared with the general population of children in those study areas.


Q: Where does mercury pollution come from and what health problems does it cause?

The major source of mercury exposure for the general population is mercury-contaminated fish. Mercury is released into the air by power plants and chemical companies, falls into water, and accumulates in fish. Latinos also are exposed when they breathe mercury vapors during religious ceremonies or from cosmetics specifically marketed to Latinas, or when they ingest it in folk remedies. Mercury accumulates in the body, where it remains for many months. Women of reproductive age, fetuses and children face the greatest risk. Mercury from mothers can harm the developing brain of the fetus. Children's brains continue developing until approximately age seven, leaving them at risk of developing neurological and behavioral problems and learning disabilities.

Q: How are Latinos in the U.S. affected by mercury exposure?

A nationwide study showed that on average, Latino children have higher mercury levels in their bodies than do non-Hispanic children. Latinos are at risk of mercury exposure nationwide from various sources because they are unaware of the risks and therefore do not protect themselves adequately. For instance, many states do not issue a Spanish language version of their mercury fish contamination advisories. A study of anglers in Santa Monica Bay found that only 58 percent of Latinos, compared to 88 percent of non-Hispanics, knew about fish advisories in their area.

Additionally, recent studies of mercury use in folk remedies and cosmetics have shown that it continues to be a problem around the country. Surveys have found that more than one out of 12 Latinos in New Mexico cite azogue (mercury) as a cure for empacho (indigestion). A 2003 study of Latinos in Massachusetts found that 38 percent have used or know someone who has used azogue for religious, spiritual or health purposes.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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