Two Thirds of U.S. Latinos Breathe Air that Fails Federal Standards

WASHINGTON (October 20, 2004) - Many Latinos suffer more from environmental health problems than the general population, according to a report released today by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The report, "Hidden Danger: Environmental Health Threats in the Latino Community," is available in Spanish and English.

Latinos, who now comprise the majority in some of the nation's most polluted urban and agricultural areas, are particularly threatened by air pollution, agricultural pesticides, and other contaminants such as lead and mercury. Exposure to these contaminants can cause serious health problems, including asthma and cancer; giardiasis, hepatitis, cholera and other waterborne diseases; and neurological and developmental problems.

The report found that too often government authorities, businesses, farm operators and landlords fail to provide warnings in Spanish about environmental health threats, while federal and state agencies have not collected relevant data or conducted studies assessing environmental health threats in Latino communities.

"We have an information gap," said Adrianna Quintero, author of the report and NRDC's director of Latino outreach. "On the one hand, government agencies have not done an adequate job investigating the link between pollution and Latino health. On the other hand, those agencies, businesses and other authorities have not adequately warned the Latino community about the health risks we know are there. No matter how you slice it, Latinos are not getting the information they need to protect themselves."

The environmental problems described in the report range from mercury contamination and air pollution to arsenic in drinking water and pesticide exposure. The report provides some sobering statistics:

  • Nearly 26 million of the 38.8 million Latinos in the United States live in areas that violate federal air quality standards (page 9).

  • Many Latino communities across the United States have poor drinking water quality. For example, drinking water supplies in Albuquerque and Ajo, Arizona, have elevated levels of arsenic (page 32), while 12 percent of the residents in the U.S.-Mexico border region do not have access to potable water (page 28).

  • Nearly 90 percent of U.S. farmworkers are Latino, and many of these laborers and their families are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides (page 38).

  • Latino children are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white children to have unsafe levels of lead in their blood (page 50).

  • Between 19 percent and 44 percent of Hispanic respondents to a recent survey reported using mercury for magic or religious purposes. Researchers estimate that 47,000 capsules of mercury are sold each year in New York City alone for these activities (page 58).

U.S. Latino communities can better protect themselves from pollution-related health problems, the report notes, but only with a concerted effort by government and industry. The report recommends more government funding for research to better identify the problems, as well as for broader outreach to the Latino community. It also calls for federal and state action to strengthen water and air quality safeguards, ban or restrict the use of hazardous pesticides, and tighten controls on polluters.

"Latinos across the country are suffering more from industrial pollution," said Dr. Elena V. Ríos, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association. "We need a lot more information from our local, state and federal health authorities, and the Environmental Protection Agency needs to do a better job enforcing the law. Not only would that improve the health of the Latino community, it would improve the health of all Americans."