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For Immediate Release: 
Sunday, May 19, 2002

OAKLAND, June 18, 2002 – In California, the whiter or richer your neighborhood, the cleaner the air you breathe.

Residents of predominantly non-Anglo or poorer neighborhoods in California are much more likely to breathe harmful levels of airborne soot and dust than residents of more affluent or white neighborhoods, according to state and federal data analyzed by Environmental Working Group (EWG).

Although the proposed new soot and dust standards the state Air Resources Board (ARB) will vote on Thursday would benefit all Californians, poor and non-Anglo residents have most at stake. At news conferences today in Los Angeles and Fresno, EWG, The Greenlining Institute and the Latino Issues Forum urged the adoption and rigorous enforcement of the proposed new PM standards.

"In the most diverse state in the nation, racial disparities in air quality are intolerable," said EWG Vice President Bill Walker. "By failing to equitably enforce or even monitor compliance with air pollution laws, state and federal authorities are in effect sanctioning higher rates of respiratory disease and death for non-Anglos."

EWG obtained average annual readings from state and federal air monitors in 112 neighborhoods that record levels of microscopic soot and dust (technically known as particulate matter, or PM). We overlaid that with neighborhood-level data from the 2000 U.S. Census, and found that the racial and economic inequities of dirty air in California are sharply defined:

  • Annual average particulate levels in neighborhoods with mostly non-Anglo residents are 28 percent higher than in areas with mostly Anglo residents. This disparity is even more severe in Latino neighborhoods, where PM levels are 36 percent higher than in Anglo neighborhoods.
  • Annual average particulate levels in neighborhoods with a greater than average share of residents living below the federal poverty line are 17 percent higher than in areas with fewer than average poor residents.
  • PM-related deaths in predominantly non-Anglo neighborhoods are almost twice as high as in white areas. Hospital admissions for PM-related illnesses in non-Anglo neighborhoods are 46 percent higher.
  • If the proposed new state standards are met, people in non-Anglo neighborhoods would see PM-related deaths decline by 86 percent and hospital admissions for PM-related illnesses decline by 55 percent. For every million people living in these neighborhoods, residents would suffer 164,000 fewer asthma attacks and lose 86,500 fewer days of work each year from PM-related illnesses.
  • The clean air color line also extends to neighborhood air monitoring and enforcement of air pollution laws. Eighty percent of the air quality monitors in the state are in predominantly Anglo neighborhoods, and nationally, the average penalty assessed air polluters in Anglo neighborhoods is three times the average penalty in non-Anglo neighborhoods.

"For a long time, we’ve been seeing residents of our communities getting sicker and sicker with asthma and other respiratory diseases due to poor air quality," said Ben Benavidez of the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) and a board member of the Latino Issues Forum. "Now we have the data to show that low-income and Latino communities are breathing dirtier air. If Gov. Davis’ air board is listening, we can use this information to help create healthier communities."

PM pollution has been linked to an array of respiratory ailments in children and adults. A major international research effort examining the effects of PM exposure has clearly established that increased particulates result in increased mortality. State scientists estimate that PM causes or contributes to the deaths of more than 9,300 people a year in California – more than the number of deaths caused by car accidents, murder and AIDS combined.

As the first major air quality regulations developed since the 1999 adoption of the state’s Environmental Justice Act, the proposed new particulate rules could be a milestone in the struggle for environmental equity California. But they come just as the Bush Administration has proposed major rollbacks in the federal Clean Air Act – another reason California must set standards with teeth.

"The Bush Administration’s proposal to roll back air quality standards will impact low-income and minority people the most, because the most polluting facilities are disproportionately located in low- income communities and communities of color," said Ireri Valenzuela, health policy director of The Greenlining Institute. "Apparently the pledge to ’leave no child behind’ doesn’t include every child’s right to clean air."

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