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The Fight for Clean Air: The Latino Community at the Forefront

Posted on 06/16/2021 @ 10:35 AM

Tags: Environment, Civil Rights, Health

By Cintia Ortiz
LULAC Environmental Justice Fellow

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how damaging air pollution can be to Latinos’ health. Air pollution increases our susceptibility to getting the virus and complications due to our high exposure to pollution, underlying health conditions, and lack of access to adequate health care coverage. As of April 2021, Latinos are 2 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 3 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, and 2.3 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than our non-Hispanic white counterparts. The pandemic has made it crystal clear that communities of color bear the burdens of the 21st century. Climate change exacerbated by air pollution is slowly killing our black and brown communities.

The Leading Air Pollutants and Effects

Air pollutants come in distinct shapes and sizes and harm human health and the environment in different ways. The major air pollutants of today are ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, toxic air pollutants, and greenhouse gases.

Ozone can be found in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) where it functions as a protective layer against harmful ultraviolet rays. However, ozone at the ground level (troposphere) poses serious health problems such as pneumonia, asthma attacks, and decreased lung function. Latinos and children are more vulnerable to these risks. Ozone pollution is created when nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, and sunlight mix. Nitrogen oxides are released with the burning of gasoline, coal, and other fossil fuels.

Particulate Matter pollution (PM) is made up of extremely small particles and liquid droplets including acids such as nitrates and sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. PM poses serious health threats to the heart and lungs as it can cause asthma attacks, respiratory problems, and even death.

Carbon Monoxide and Nitrogen Dioxide are released from the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon Monoxides are mostly released by vehicle engines burning fossil fuels. Exposure to this pollutant can cause dizziness, tiredness, and even death. High levels of exposure to nitrogen dioxide can increase an individual's receptiveness to respiratory infections, shortness of breath, and coughs.

Sulfur Dioxide comes from the burning of coal, oil power plants, and factories. This pollutant can complicate breathing for individuals with asthma, irritate the human body such as the nose, eyes, and throat.

Toxic Air Pollutants such as arsenic, asbestos, and benzene come from different sources but can be linked to causing cancer, birth defects, and breathing complications. Many of the toxic air pollutants come from fossil fuels and chemical plants or building materials.

Greenhouse Gasses such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide trap heat in the atmosphere causing the planet to get warmer. Climate change will increasingly cause severe weather, extreme heat, air pollution, water pollution, environmental degradation, and forced migration. This will increase heat-related illnesses, asthma, malnutrition, fatalities, and mental health impacts.

Geography of Latinos and Pollution

Latinos are more vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution given the geographical risk of where they live, work, go to school, and play. Communities living near oil and gas facilities are experiencing disproportionate health effects due to lack of clean air, as well as, additional health risks from toxins in the air. Latino communities are more likely to bear the burden of serious health risks caused by air pollution from coal plants or oil and gas facilities. More than 1.78 million Latinos, live in areas where toxic air pollution from oil and gas facilities is so high that the cancer risk due to this industry alone exceeds EPA’s level of concern. Additionally, 1.81 million Latino individuals live within a half-mile of an oil or gas facility, with increased exposure to pollutants at a cost to their health from oil and gas air pollution. These factors contribute to Latinos’ relatively high asthma rates. For example, over 3.6 million Latinos in the U.S. suffer from asthma, Latinos are also twice as likely to visit an emergency room for asthma, and Latino children are twice as likely to die from asthma compared to their white counterparts.

  • Occupations such as agriculture, construction, and landscaping, where Latinos are overrepresented, are vulnerable to increased risk of exposure to contaminated air and increasing temperatures associated with uncontrolled carbon pollution.
  • Latinos have higher rates of commuting in high-density areas, living near energy plants, and working with hazardous chemicals all of which raise an individual’s susceptibility to air pollution and COVID-19.
  • Latinos are 165% more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of particulate matter pollution
  • 48% of Latinos in the US live in counties that frequently violate ground-level ozone standards

Health Care

Latino populations in the U.S lack equal access to health resources and care. Greater risk of exposure to pollutants and lack of equal access compounds the burden on historically underserved Latino communities. This health disparity, a difference in health that is closely linked with social or economic disadvantages impacts the overall health and quality of life for Latino families. Economic disparities translate into older or outdated housing while also disproportionately placing Latinos in vulnerable areas compounding health disparities. Economic disparities combined with lower access to health care coverage poses a challenge to the survival and resilience of these communities by increasing these health threats from air pollution into an increased health burden on Latino communities.

  • Latinos are less likely to receive proper asthma medication, have access to an asthma specialist, and far less likely to receive follow-up care after an asthma emergency.
  • More than 40% of Americans, over 135 million people are living in places with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate pollution.
  • People of color are over three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than white people.
  • Hispanics have the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group. In 2019, 50.1 % of Hispanics had private insurance coverage compared to 74.7% non-Hispanic whites.

Latinos Care

Given the impacts, it is no wonder that Latinos support immediate action on climate and air pollution. Young people in particular are committed and energized to ensure elected officials address the climate crisis, create a racially just economy, and build a clean energy future.

  • A March 2020 poll found that 78% of Latino voters expressed that they have personally experienced the impacts of climate change.
  • Additionally, 86% of respondents said they are more likely to support a candidate who invests in clean energy than a candidate who wants to expand oil drilling.
  • In a 2015 poll, 59% of Latinos believed that the U.S would improve economic growth and create new jobs if stronger environmental laws were enacted.
  • 85% of Latinos also believed it was extremely important or very important to reduce smog and air pollution.

The Clean Air Act

The Clean Air Act is a fundamental federal law protecting those who live in the U.S. from interstate and intrastate air pollution. This legislation has led to environmental and public health benefits across the U.S. Since 1990, there has been approximately a 50% decline in emissions of key air pollutants, translating to a reduction in air pollution and preventing hundreds of thousands of cases of serious health effects each year. Given the attacks of the previous administration on the Clean Air Act, it is important to continue to protect the Clean Air Act in order to reduce emissions that are harmful to Latinos of all ages and opposes any effort to loosen its regulations placed on coal, oil, or gas facilities in the United States.

What Can be Done

  • Find and contact your elected officials and urge them to protect the Clean Air Act to reduce emissions that are harmful to Latinos of all ages and oppose any effort to loosen regulations placed on coal, oil, or gas facilities in the United States
  • Demand the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reinforce and enhance the Clean Air Act’s regulations, efforts, and programs.
  • Engage in state and local efforts that aim to reduce air pollution and or push back on any efforts that attack the health and longevity of your community.

Additional Resources

Check if your city is among the Most Polluted Cities by Ozone and Short Term or Annual Particle Pollution in the U.S. - Click Here
Find out if your school or home is in the oil & gas threat radius: Click Here
State of the Air 2021- Click Here
Oil & Gas Methane: Mapping the Path to a 65% Reduction: Click Here
Plain English Guide to the Clean Air Act: Click Here
Visit LULAC’s & EDF’s Vivendo Verde Website: Click Here
Moms Clean Air Force: Click Here
Asthma-Friendly Schools Initiative Toolkit: Click Here

Cintia Ortiz is an Environmental Justice Fellow for the LULAC National Office in Washington, D.C. Cintia assists with the management of LULAC's environmental justice portfolio, including mobilizing the Latino community to enforce and drive protections for clean air, water, health, and climate. Her previous experience includes working with policy, environmental justice, and disaster relief in Texas and Washington D.C. Cintia holds a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Geography, a minor in Data Analytics, and a GIS Certificate from the University of North Texas.


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> a really cool quote from a nice person
a really cool quote from a nice person