Minority Health Month Goes Far Beyond Health

Every April, National Minority Health Month is observed to raise awareness about disparities in health care and promote the need for health equity. But health does not exist in a vacuum; instead, several social factors can play a major role in how healthy any individual is.

Advancing health equity involves not only addressing issues of health care access and affordability, but also looking at housing and communities. To this day, a person’s zip code is still the single largest indicator of health.

Part of the reason is that minority residents are much more likely to be living around manufacturing plants and other facilities that use or store highly hazardous chemicals. Compared to the United States as a whole, there are 75 percent more blacks and 60 percent more Latinos living in fence line zones around facilities with hazardous chemicals, according to the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform.

Studies have shown that facilities with toxic chemicals are often constructed in poorer communities because they are seen as the path of least resistance with fewer resources and less political power to fight back. In the 2001 study, Which Came First? Toxic Facilities, Minority Move-In, and Environmental Justice, researchers found that “hazards follow people of color, not the other way around.” The health issues that can arise in conjunction with proximity to toxic facilities include cancer, respiratory disorders, and developmental and reproductive disorders, to name a few.

Disparities exist across a range of health conditions. A study done in Southern California found strong links between race or ethnicity and estimated lifetime cancer risk associated with exposure to toxic air pollutants. About one-third of the minority population lived in areas of high cancer risk compared to only 15 percent of the white population living in these areas.

Asthma risk in children is also substantially higher for black children than for white children, with black children ages 10 to 14 being six times more likely to die of asthma than white children. A randomized controlled trial looking at the relationship between socioeconomic status, stress, and asthma found that low income was an independent risk factor all on its own.

In addition, according to the Achieving Equity in Health Policy Brief, minorities as a whole have higher rates of diabetes, stroke, and other largely preventable diseases when compared to their white counterparts.

Does poverty equal substandard housing? In the majority of cases the answer is yes. Those who are financially struggling face many barriers, and the first could be their own health.