Improving the Environment to Benefit Latinos

Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to improve awareness of environmental health and its disproportionate effects on minority communities.

Global warming and energy may be the hot news topics of the day, but Latino communities—which are disproportionately affected by issues of environmental degradation and climate change—have been largely left out of the debate.

Part of the problem may be that Latinos generally don’t think of the environment as a bread and butter issue. But it’s this kind of thinking that is hurting our community. That’s why Latinos should use the momentum of Hispanic Heritage Month to begin galvanizing around an issue that’s truly central to the health of the community—global warming.

Low-income and minority communities are the most vulnerable to environmental threats because of where they live and a lack of access to information. Two key environmental health concerns are air pollution and mercury contamination.

According to the American Lung Association, 80 percent of Latinos live in counties that do not meet at least one federal air quality standard as mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This compares to only 57 percent of whites and 65 percent of African Americans.

Air pollutants from vehicles and emissions from power plants and factories can lead to respiratory problems such as asthma, allergies, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and, in extreme cases, even death. In fact, asthma is the most common chronic illness affecting Latino children living in the United States. Two and a half times more Latino children suffer from asthma than non-Latino white children. And according to the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Puerto Rican children have the highest prevalence of lifetime asthma and asthma attacks in the United States.

Hispanic health organizations have cited asthma as an urgent issue for our community and we need to be proactive about tackling the problem. This means supporting alternative fuels such as cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen; and higher mileage standards for vehicles that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lead to cleaner air.

Achieving healthier air means changing the way we generate electricity and changing the type of energy we consume. Electricity generation in the United States is currently fed primarily by coal. And although coal may be cheap and plentiful, it is also incredibly dirty.

Coal is the largest source of anthropogenic mercury emissions worldwide. It pollutes the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. And it is estimated that coal combustion provides as much as two-thirds of the man-made emissions of mercury to the atmosphere.

Mercury is a toxic metal that contaminates coastlines, “bioaccumulates” in fish, and can build up in human tissue. Fish contaminated with mercury cannot be distinguished by smell, taste, or touch, but the mercury can cause acute health problems. During pregnancy, exposure to even small amounts of mercury can lead to learning disabilities, mental retardation, and other developmental and neurological illnesses in fetuses. The Food and Drug Administration has recommended that pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and women who are nursing limit or avoid eating certain types of fish altogether, including the most popular fish consumed in the United States—tuna.

According to the League of United Latin American Citizens, 39 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant—an area with maximum risk exposure to pollutants. And Latinos are at a higher risk because they are often unaware of advisories about environmental pollutants. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia have issued fish consumption advisories. Yet studies show that Latino anglers tend to be less aware of these advisories than their white counterparts due to the limited distribution of such information, the lack of Spanish-language information, and the complex wording in some advisories.

Environmental health is central to the wellbeing of our women, children, and families, and Latinos need be a part of the conversation. Taking care of the environment is not someone else’s problem—it is a problem for us all—including Latinos, who oftentimes bear the brunt of poor environmental policies but are left out of the political discourse. This Hispanic Heritage Month, Latinos can step up and both demand better information and begin discussing the benefits of investing in alternative energy and curbing the effects of global warming.


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