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Unequal Impact: The Link Between Asthma and Environmental Racism

Smart Air LA

By Maria T. Khan

Environmental issues are not just health issues, they are also racial justice issues. When environmental hazards are more detrimental to under-represented populations, it is essential that we analyze pollution data in context to the communities they affect.

In partnership with SmartAirLA and The Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma (LBACA), Advancement Project California visualized the impact of pollutant sources – specifically, hospitalizations from asthma and school absenteeism – in an area of Los Angeles County with historically high rates of asthma: the South Bay (Long Beach DHHS, 2019). Our Research and Data Analysis team developed a series of geospatial visualizations with open-source and community-identified data and insights for the communities of Wilmington, Carson, San Pedro, and West Long Beach. Schools in the study highlight how close pollution sources are to children, one of the most vulnerable populations impacted by asthma. 

Research news: The Center for Disease Control and Prevention finds that Black people are more likely to die from asthma than other racial/ethnic groups (CDC 2019).  

The maps are a tool for organizations on the front lines to uplift community voices and data and advocate for local health programming and funding. Local leaders also have an opportunity to understand which areas are in high need of environmental and health protections from the surrounding pollutant emitting sources. 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted a study to find that the annual cost for an asthma patient with well-controlled symptoms is $450 while the cost for a patient with more than one hospital admission is $5,000 annually (LA County DPH, 2014). In the South Bay, 78 percent of schools tracking asthma emergency visits have rates higher than average for the county of Los Angeles.  

Furthermore, asthma is the leading cause for school absenteeism rates, a risk factor for poor achievement, and school dropout. A national scientific study found that “Childhood asthma is a leading cause of chronic disease-related school absenteeism in the U.S., associated with more than 10 million missed school days annually.” (American Journal for Preventive Medicine 2016). Of the 82 schools in this study area, about 84 percent have higher school absenteeism rates than the average for LA County. The communities of Wilmington, Carson, San Pedro, and West Long Beach are near multiple pollutant sources such as truck highway traffic, refineries, and two industrial ports. 

The environmental health of an area is challenging to measure because there are no definitive boundaries in air space, but indicators related to the health of families are correlated to the quality of the air we breathe daily. Advancement Project California’s geospatial visualizations call attention to the correlation between the danger for asthma patients and proximity to pollutant sources. 

To strive for a more equitable and racially just community, we need to focus on policies and initiatives that allow organizations like SmartAirLA and LBACA to drive community-centered ideas on protections from pollutant sources and improving air quality.

Support the work of SmartAirLA and LBACA by visiting