Air quality takes toll on Latino families

Fresno resident María Arevalo does not need an air quality monitor to know when the San Joaquín Valley air is severely polluted. Her health, and the health of her children, are the strongest indicators of local air quality.

Two of Arevalo's six kids suffer from severe asthma. One child's asthma flares up when the air is particularly polluted, as it was last week when regional ozone levels reached unhealthy levels multiple times.

Arevalo herself was recently bed-bound for days with an allergy attack that caused pain in her eyes, head and throat. Because she is uninsured, her only option was to buy allergy medicine at the pharmacy.

But Arevalo's family's experiences with air pollution and its associated health problems are not unique.

Half of all California Latinos face health risks due to living in counties with polluted air, according to a new study, 'U.S. Latinos & Air Pollution,' which was co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, the Center for American Progress and the National Wildlife Federation.

Nationwide, nearly one out of every two Latinos lives in the country's top 25 most ozone-polluted cities.

Of the nation's ten most ozone-polluted cities and regions, eight are in California and six -- including Bakersfield-Delano, Visalia-Porterville, Fresno-Madera, Sacramento-Arden Arcade-Yuba City, Hanford-Corcoran, and Merced -- are in the heavily Latino San Joaquín Valley.

Air pollution can lead to increased risk of respiratory diseases, including asthma, lung cancer and chronic bronchitis, and can contribute to premature death. Latinos are especially vulnerable to these air pollution-related problems, since more than a quarter nationwide live in poverty, and nearly one in three lack health insurance, the report says.

The report calls for stricter air quality policies, including a more protective ozone standard, which could prevent thousands of premature deaths, asthma attacks, hospital and emergency room visits, heart attacks, and missed days of school and work. The Obama Administration announced earlier this month it would delay a revision of the current ozone standard.

The conclusions of the study did not surprise Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D -- Fresno.

Due to economics and poor land use planning, people of color tend to live in the poor communities that are more burdened by pollution, but it should not be this way, he said.

"People of color often live in the poorer parts of the community, where you have a lot of environmental justice issues that exist," he said, noting that many communities of color are clustered near freeways, rendering plants, or waste dumps.

"Should these places be located next to any neighborhood, regardless of color? The answer is 'no.' I think better land use plan can go a long way."

Along with better land use planning, Perea said improved access to health care, improved public transportation, and renewable energy policies could improve the health and air quality in Latino communities, while also creating more jobs.

Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, said the fact that Latinos are heavily impacted by poor air quality is an environmental justice and social justice issue.

"At the end of the day, place does matter and so does race, and so does class," Pérez said. "The truth is that, for Latinos in this case, they are disproportionately impacted negatively according to where they live."

That disparity, he said, is best solved through policies that create long-term change.

And the good news is that Latinos support environmental policies that would improve air quality, and they are a growing force at the ballot box, according to the report.

A recent Public Policy Institute of California study found 87 percent of Latino voters in the state believe the government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions, and 81 percent said they would like to see stronger air pollution standards for new vehicles, according to the study.

Arevalo, of Fresno, is the perfect example. She can't vote in this country, but she still does her part to improve air quality in the heavily polluted Valley.

During the San Joaquín Valley Air Pollution Control District's air alerts -- when the Valley is experiencing conditions that could lead to exceeding a health-based smog standard -- Arevalo strives to not drive her car.

A member of the local community group Latinos United for Clean Air, Arevalo also uses non-toxic house cleaning products, which she makes out of household items like vinegar and Borax. She teaches her friends and neighbors to make and use these products, too.

Air pollution, she said, "doesn't discriminate." Improving air quality, she said, "is for everybody."

"We all have an obligation to take care of the environment."

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