While people of all ethnicities live in polluted areas, minorities and individuals with low incomes are more likely to be exposed to high concentrations of dangerous particles in air pollution.
According to a study published in the journal Environmental Health News, Latinos in the U.S. were the most likely to be exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, especially of compounds such as vanadium, nitrates and zinc.
Besides Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans and those in poverty were all more likely to be exposed to these particles compared to non-Hispanic whites.
Researchers explain pollutants that are the most concerning are those comprising what is known as “soot.” These particles are also known collectively as PM2.5, and are a mixture of emissions from power plants, refineries, diesel fuel and other forms of combustion.
Residents living in areas near busy roads, factories and refineries are at a higher risk for contact with soot.
“Numerous studies indicate that some particles are more harmful than others,” said lead author Michelle Bell, a professor of environmental health at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, told Cheryl Katz of Environmental Health News.
The study is the first to examine the relationship of specific particles and how they disproportionately affect certain ethnic and social groups in the country.
Air pollution, Hispanics and health issues
Researchers also caution many of the identified particles have been linked to asthma and cancer.
Approximately 26 million people in the United States live with asthma, a condition where the airways swell due to exposure to an irritant, and according to the Office of Minority Health, Hispanics are 30 percent more likely to visit a hospital because of asthma when compared to non-Hispanic whites.
Hispanic children are also disproportionately affected, being 40 percent more likely to die from asthma compared to non-Hispanic whites.
The new study indicates Latinos are the group most at risk for soot, giving the example of Boyle Heights, in East Los Angeles, where the population is 90 percent Hispanic and is considered one of the poorest regions of the city.
“[Boyle Heights is] surrounded by freeways,” said Susan Nakamura, planning manager for the region’s South Coast Air Quality Management District, “and a lot of those freeways are used for shipping commercial goods.” Nakamura explains Boyle Heights is near four major railway stations in addition to numerous chrome plating factories and auto body shops.
Air pollution particles and public health
On a larger scale, Bell and fellow researchers examined the prevalence of 14 different compounds associated with significant health risks.
Their findings included:
- Areas with a high population of Hispanics were found to have higher levels of 11 particles. Hispanics were found to be exposed to 1.5 times the amount of nickel, nitrate, silicon, vanadium and aluminum when compared to non-Hispanic whites.
- Areas with a high population of Asians had high levels of seven components, and, like Hispanics, had a higher exposure to nickel, nitrate and vanadium when compared to non-Hispanic whites.
- Areas with a high population of African-Americans had higher levels of four compounds, including sulfate and zinc.
- Individuals who were unemployed or of low education had high exposure levels to several compounds, including silicon and zinc.
The results of the study are being considered as a step to providing better medical assistance to areas considered at-risk for high air pollution.
“The notion of trying to figure out what are the different components and are there specific things in the PM2.5 that cause more of a problem… would have implications for how you regulate health effects,” said Marie Lynn Miranda, dean of University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative.