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In California, People of Color Are Hit Hardest By Environmental Hazards

Race, more than income, is strongly linked to living near pollutants of all kinds.    
A stretch of the California State Route 99 corridor in the San Joaquin Valley is shown busy with pollution causing farm equipment, trucks and cars in Madera, California.
A stretch of the California State Route 99 corridor in the San Joaquin Valley is shown busy with pollution causing farm equipment, trucks and cars in Madera, California.AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian

The people of the San Joaquin Valley are feeling some of the worst health effects of California’s drought. The lack of moisture has exacerbated existing air-quality problems in the state’s agricultural heartland, affecting those suffering from asthma—which could be up to nearly a quarter of the population. Nitrate levels from agricultural runoff are creeping up in the groundwater supplies of many communities, leaving what little water is left undrinkable.

Who are these hard-hit people? They are mostly poor and non-white. And with or without drought, California’s environmental hazards are disproportionately shouldered by people of color. That’s what researchers at UC Berkeley and the California EPA have found, using an EPA tool that measures multiple “pollution burdens”—such as pesticide exposure, hazardous waste, traffic density, and water contamination—as well as population characteristics for all of California’s ZIP codes. It pops out a “cumulative impact score” for each area.