Why Latinos are disproportionately affected by asthma, and what we can do
This post was co-authored by EDF’s Rachel Shaffer and Declan Kingland, National Health Programs Coordinator for the League of United Latin American Citizens. Para leer en Español haga clic aquí. The text was updated Sept. 10, 2015.
Today in the United States, Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino whites, and nearly 10 percent of Latino children under the age of 18 suffer from this chronic respiratory illness. Among all ethnic and racial groups in the U.S., Puerto Ricans suffer the highest incidence of asthma, at more than double the rate of non-Hispanic whites.
Addressing the dangerous indoor and outdoor air pollution that is linked to asthma is critical for the health of Latino communities – and for all Americans.
Latinos are one of the poorest demographics in the United States, with roughly 1 in 4 Latinos living under the poverty level. Many Latinos also face challenges due to limited English-language proficiency, and in some cases, low levels of education. These issues can lead Latinos, particularly new immigrants, to low-paying jobs, often in the fields of agriculture, construction, and service. Too often, these jobs expose workers to serious respiratory hazards from both indoor and outdoor air pollution, yet they frequently provide no healthcare benefits. For example, the toxic chemical formaldehyde, which is linked to asthma, can be found in glues, insulation, and wood products to which construction workers are disproportionately exposed. Asthma-related toxics can also be found in paints, cleaning products, carpets, and foam cushions.
Low-paying jobs held by Latinos lead to low-income families, and these families can be at even greater risk for asthma if their housing is substandard or if their home is located near major roadways, factories, or power plants, which produce air pollutants that can exacerbate asthma. People with asthma are especially sensitive to the pollutants released from cars, buses, heavy machinery, factories, and power plants, including particulate matter (soot), ground-level ozone (smog), carbon monoxide, and more.
Nearly 1 in 2 Latinos in the U.S. live in counties that frequently violate ground-level ozone standards. Latinos are also 165% more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of particulate matter pollution than non-Latino whites, and nearly 2 in 5 Latinos lives within 30 miles of a power plant. Asthma triggers can also be found inside the home – from ethanolamines found in cleaning products, to bisphenol-A (BPA), a toxic chemical found in plastic products and food can linings. Some asthma-linked toxic chemicals are even found in personal creams and lotions.
Statistics show that Latinos face disproportionate exposures to asthma-exacerbating indoor and outdoor air pollution. At the same time, Latinos face added challenges when seeking adequate healthcare. This is due in part to the language, educational, and economic barriers mentioned previously, which can limit access to or awareness of available healthcare resources that may be available. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 Latinos lacks health insurance.
These barriers to health care access can have significant consequences:
- Compared to non-Latino whites, Latinos with asthma are less likely to be prescribed appropriate asthma medications and less likely to have access to asthma specialists.
- Latinos who have an asthma emergency that sends them to the ER or hospital are also less likely to receive follow-up care or an asthma action plan.
Combined, these serious issues can make an otherwise manageable disease life-threatening.
What we can do
While these challenges are daunting, we have an opportunity to address part of the problem by demanding that our leaders take action to reduce asthma hazards – for Latinos, and for the nation as a whole. This is why EDF and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have come together this year to help raise awareness among and empower Latinos in the U.S. to better combat this often preventable illness by strengthening the air pollution and chemicals laws that protect us.
We at EDF and at LULAC encourage you to ask your Congressman to:
- support reforms that strengthen federal chemicals regulatory policies and
- support the US Environmental Protection Agency in its efforts to clean up our air and limit pollutants that cause climate change and increase the number of asthma attacks.
Nationwide, Latinos are among the 25 million people – including 7 million children – affected by asthma. We can help address the immediate problem through other avenues – like improving health care coverage or worker protections. But ultimately, we need to address the root of the problem. We need to get rid of the air pollution and toxins that are linked to asthma. All of us, including our Latino communities, should act now to get rid of the underlying causes of the disease. Until we do, we are all at risk.