By Alex Janin, April 8, 2014
Screenshot of Southern California area, dark blue indicates most polluted (Janin/CalEnviroScreen)
Many California residents, particularly in big cities like Los Angeles
and San Diego, gripe about the ever-present smog that hangs over the
skyline, but some communities have it far worse than others.
According to a report
from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, ethnic
minorities, particularly Latinos and African Americans, make up a large
proportion of residents in the most polluted neighborhoods despite
making up a relatively small percentage of the statewide population.
An online tool called the CalEnviroScreen
depicts California’s pollution levels by ZIP code using a color scale.
According to the OEHHA’s report, it represents immediate pollution
levels and “potential vulnerability” for the pollution of a community.
Initially launched in 2012, the tool has recently been updated to
include racial and ethnic makeup of a population.
Clumps of dark blue represent the state’s most polluted areas. Los
Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley encompass the worst scoring ZIP
The report finds that African Americans, who make up less than 13
percent of the statewide population, comprise almost a third of the
worst polluted ZIP codes.
Latinos, another ethnic minority group, make up a large majority of
the ten percent most polluted ZIP codes. Only 37.6 percent of California
residents are Latino.
What accounts for this disproportion?
Ed Avol, an expert on air pollution and its impact on public health, believes there is a socioeconomic element to consider.
“Simply put, people tend to live where they can afford to, and people generally prefer to live among their peers,” said Avol.
Others believe the connection between ethnic minorities and polluted
neighborhoods is related to career opportunist rather than social
Roberto Cabrales, a community organizer for Communities for a Better
Environment in Huntington Park, attributed the link to job availability.
“It’s important to consider the historic make-up of the community,”
Cabrales said. “There was a demographic change in Southeast Los Angeles
in the ‘70s and ‘80s when immigrants started fleeing gang activity and
started buying homes here—affordability is a key factor and these
weren’t the best paying jobs, which is why Latinos tended to go after
Avol pointed out that lower-rent areas are in less desirable
locations, often near busy freeways or industrial facilities. People who
live in these neighborhoods often get overlooked when it comes to
political determinations, he said.
“Without a political ally to represent their community’s point of
view, people tend to get ignored in key developmental decisions such as
where a new freeway or rail yard may be built, and these facilities are
rarely built in highly affluent places like Beverley Hills or Palos
Verdes,” Avol said.
However, certain community groups are working hard to get the
attention of their legislatures to help eliminate pollution in their
neighborhoods. CBE has built its organization around the mission
to “build people’s power in California’s communities of color and low
income communities to achieve environmental health and justice.”
Cabrales says his primary responsibility is to engage the local
community to hold elected officials and polluters responsible for
cleaning up the neighborhoods.
“We’re surrounded by manufacturing hubs, stationary sources [of
pollution] that produce and handle chemicals, body shops, power plants,
and mobile pollution,” said Cabrales. “We’re boxed in by
all the major freeways in Southern California, which elevates our risk
for cancer so we make sure every decision being made involves the