Study finds correlation between minority communities, risk of environmental hazards

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UC Berkeley researchers and the California Environmental Protection Agency, or CalEPA, found in a study published Thursday that neighborhoods with high populations of racial minorities are disproportionately affected by environmental health hazards.

The study, published online in the American Journal of Public Health, suggested that minority communities in California are more likely to live in environments with health hazards. The environmental hazards assessed in the study included pesticides and particulate matter, according to one of the lead authors and UC Berkeley doctoral candidate Lara Cushing.

The map showed that Berkeley had a lower rate of environmental hazards as opposed to surrounding areas, including West Oakland and Richmond. West Berkeley had the highest rate within the city.

“Hopefully the UC Berkeley researchers can advance the understanding of how policy makers can use this data … for policies that can actually solve problems,” said Dara O’Rourke, associate professor in the campus department of environmental science, policy and management.

The researchers used the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, or CalEnviroScreen, developed by CalEPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, to conduct their study. They found a correlation between CalEnviroScreen data and census data about the racial makeup of communities.

“I think it’s exciting that CalEPA has been proactive in developing a screening tool that can help begin to address environmental injustice, so it’s very forward looking in that sense,” Cushing said.

CalEnviroScreen assigns a score for communities, using 12 indicators of pollution burden to look at the distributions of different environmental health hazards in different communities. The tool, available as an interactive online map, also took into account measures of vulnerability to pollution, such as age or illness.

“Analysis shows that even without including race in the score, the results closely correlate with race,” said Sam Delson, spokesperson for the office. “We think it’s important to continue to analyze that relationship as we continue to revise and update the tool.”

According to a press release, Hispanic people were 6.2 times as likely to live in one of the most affected communities, African Americans were 5.8 times as likely, and Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders were almost twice as likely.

The CalEnviroScreen was developed through a multi-stakeholder review process. Researchers consulted with academic experts, CalEPA regulatory entities and the general public through more than 15 workshops and 1,000 comments and questions during the development of the tool.

Delson said the tool is used by the government to identify disadvantaged communities that will benefit from the state’s cap-and-trade program, in which legislators set an annual “cap” on the amount of carbon a company can produce. Companies can sell their allowances in auctions. Twenty-five percent of the proceeds from these auctions go to benefiting these communities.

Contact Michelle Leung and Emma Soldon at [email protected].