Environmental Exposure, Health, and Race in California

My previous post looked at the newly updated CalEnviroScreen tool, which allows folks in California to see where their community ranks on exposure to environmental and health burdens. I asked whether you were surprised by your community's score. It turns out I might have been able to make a pretty good guess by asking for just one piece of demographic information – your race.

California EPA just released a supplementary report that analyzes the relationship between CalEnviroScreen scores on the one hand and race and ethnicity on the other. That relationship is sobering, but regrettably not unexpected.

If you are Latino, chances are over 50-50 that you live in one of the top 30% worst-scoring census tracts in California. In contrast, if you are non-Hispanic white, your odds are only 13.3%. The report finds that “[o]ver 19 percent of the state’s Hispanic/Latino population resides in one of the 10% most burdened communities, while fewer than 3 percent of the state’s white population live in those communities.”

These disparities in exposure could have staggering and compounding health implications. Research shows that health outcomes from exposure can vary based on race. The report notes, for example, that African-American mothers’ exposure to particulate pollution results in a greater reduction in infant birth weight than white mothers’ exposure. This difference in health outcomes could be magnified where the level of exposure is itself unequal, as the new report shows.

These disparities are cause for serious concern. The tool and report identify this, but cannot stop there. Agencies and others should use all tools available to actually help address the disparities and the real-life burdens of communities across the state. CalEnviroScreen has the potential to be an important tool to this end by helping identify areas where additional resources and attention would go the furthest, promoting greater compliance with and enforcement of environmental laws, and influencing permitting and siting decisions from the get-go. We will be reviewing and commenting on the tool and its planned use to help make sure that happens.