Public parks and school playgrounds hold a uniquely vital role in the Hispanic and Latino communities. These precious green spaces, most weekends and holidays filled with vibrant colors, lively music and diverse cuisines, are often a primary place for kids to experience their culture. Attending multigenerational events with my Mexican-American extended family shows me the important interplay between those relatives new to the country and those quite old in it.

At these events, I’m far more likely to focus on what’s happening at the park instead of why it’s located next to a busy highway. Unfortunately, parks can be dangerous places for children of color because of polluted air. A study released this year by Harvard University reinforced what experts have known for some time, that air pollution in predominantly Latino zip codes is 14% higher than predominantly white areas for fine particulate matter and other contaminants. In fact, over the two decades examined in the study, fine particle levels decreased in white areas and either remained constant or increased in Latino communities. Disproportionate exposure to air pollution in communities of color is linked to premature death, childhood asthma attacks and a host of other chronic and debilitating health conditions.

Why Children Are More at Risk

The Lung Association’s 2022 “State of the Air” report notes that children are both more susceptible and likely to be exposed to harm from air pollution than adults. The growth and development of a child’s lungs and breathing ability start in utero and continue into early adulthood. Exposure to air pollution at any stage of that development process can have both immediate and lasting impacts on developing lungs and children’s health. In addition, the body’s defenses that help adults fight off infections are still developing in children. This may be why children have higher rates of respiratory infections, which may lead to shortness of breath or rapid breathing, particularly in polluted air.

The presence of unacceptably high levels of air pollution at the school playgrounds and parks in Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods is exacerbated by myriad of socio-economic factors. While community partners can and should make use of daily online air quality warnings, simply staying inside is often not a viable solution. Children spend more time at school than many other places, often transported by diesel buses, and receive a significant amount of their physical activity enjoying recess. They are more likely to spend time outdoors, running around, being active and breathing hard, consequently exposing them to harm.

When not in school, the importance of neighborhood parks to Latino children and communities cannot be understated providing space for informal community convening and facilitating familial connections.

How Latino Communities Are Disproportionately Exposed

Nationwide, much of the harmful air pollution concentrated in Hispanic and Latino neighborhoods is tied to the transportation industry. Trucks, trains, naval shipping, and heavy construction equipment are far more likely to operate near school playgrounds and parks in communities of color. The National Institutes of Health has determined that children and adolescents of color are more likely to develop asthma than their white counterparts and Department of Transportation studies have shown that people living adjacent to highways, supply-chain hubs and industrial areas will suffers worse medical outcomes, including higher rates of cancer, than their more affluent neighbors.1 The American Lung Association’s “Zeroing in on Healthy Air” report highlights a critical part of the solution to discriminatory environmental injustice as the transition to zero-emission transportation and electricity generation by 2050.

Another contributor to the health threats facing these communities is the prevalence of western wildfires. Wildfires contribute additional particle pollution and other air pollution on top of that caused by the burning of fossil fuels like gas and diesel. Latino groups are disproportionately affected by smoke due to their significant populations in California, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada where the fires are particularly intense.

While Hispanic and Latino Americans proudly enjoy the lowest smoking rates of any other group in our nation, air pollution poses disproportionate risks to lung health. Whether or not a person has health coverage and access to linguistically and culturally appropriate health information may influence their overall health status, and how they are impacted by environmental stressors like air pollution. Also, there is increasing evidence that non-physical stressors such as poverty, racial/ethnic discrimination and fear of deportation can amplify the harmful effects of air pollution.

How Can You Make a Difference

It’s time to start working to improve the health and chances of success for Latino children. Actions at the local and state level can begin to have a significant impact on reducing air pollution around the places kids play. Tell your local school districts to convert their school buses to zero emission. Also, tell your elected officials to adopt the Advanced Clean Trucks Rule in your state. Getting the dirtiest old trucks off the road and replacing them with zero-emission options can help clean the skies in your neighborhood. Finally, Latino school-age children deserve to enjoy the fullness of nature and trees and vegetation have been shown to clean the air and lower temperatures, so you can also support urban planting projects, especially near where they play.

  1. Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities, nih.gov, May 2012.
  2. Proximity To Major Roadways, US Department of Transportation, Aug 24, 2015.
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