Health & Neighborhood Conditions

This section sheds more light on the community level environmental factors that influence the overall wellness and academic performance of Black youth in Los Angeles County.

The health and neighborhood conditions bear in mind that concentrated poverty, which is often tied to environmental hazards, is a reality in most school districts serving 800 or more Black students (See Figure 1.1). While we do not attempt to establish causation when documenting these patterns, we highlight and examine environmental conditions and health disparities that research suggests may adversely impact Black children and their family’s overall health and well-being. Finally, we offer insights based on the information gathered in the hope that by drawing attention to these disparities, policy interventions can be designed to ameliorate them.

With limited access to park space (and attendant recreational outlets), higher lead exposure rates, greater proximity to waste dump sites, and higher concentrations of air pollution from surrounding oil production and high-density transportation arteries, predominantly poor, Black, and Latinx neighborhoods in Los Angeles County’s urban core bear a demonstrably higher share of adverse environmental impacts compared to their whiter and more affluent counterparts. The result is higher rates of asthma and obesity as well as other deficiencies in the health, wellness, and well-being of Black, Latinx, and economically disadvantaged students, all of which are strongly correlated with lower attendance rates, higher dropout rates, chronic absenteeism, and lower academic performance (Noguera et al., 2019).

In this iteration of the report, we examine indicators of the environmental and health contexts of Black students in the 14 focus districts. Specifically, we connect data from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (Enviroscan) to specific census tracts with residential concentrations of Black people.1 Census tracts are geographic units useful to represent the location of communities. We utilize these findings to suggest where interventions to reduce disparities in health may have educational impact.

The adverse effects of air and water pollution on children’s development and overall health present major threats to their wellbeing and survival (World Health Organization, 2018). Substantial research connects ongoing exposure to pollutants to mental impairments as well as negative cognitive outcomes (Johnson et al., 2019; Wang et al., 2005). In neighborhoods where Black students and their families reside, higher levels of environmental pollution may play a significant role in disparities in academic performance and outcomes. For example, the health consequences for children related to frequent exposure to air pollution includes the development of diseases such as asthma, and other chronic respiratory illnesses, which may in turn impact disproportionate chronic absences and negative academic outcomes (Johnson et al., 2019; Wang et al., 2005). Take for example diesel emissions or exhaust, which contains tiny particles known as fine particulate matter. These tiny or “fine” particles are so small that several thousand of them could fit in the period at the end of this sentence. Diesel engines are one of the largest sources of fine particulate matter, other than natural causes such as forest fires. Diesel exhaust also contains ozone-forming nitrogen oxides and toxic air pollutants. Fine particles and ozone pose serious public health problems for those who inhale them. Exposure to these pollutants causes lung damage and aggravates existing respiratory disease such as asthma and other respiratory ailments. Figure 2.1 shows that in school districts such as Los Angeles and Long Beach, Black children are more likely to live in Census tracts where higher levels of diesel emission are present.

Figure 2.1
Figure 2.1 Diesel Emissions: Percentile Rankings of Census Tracts by District, 2018
Census tracts with the highest concentration of each group were selected for each of the 14 districts. These tracts were used to obtain indicators of environmental/health context for students in that district. Percentile rankings (between 0-100) reflect the level of diesel emissions in the selected census tract relative to census tracts across California.

Diesel emissions are not the only dangerous contaminant that affect health and learning. Hazardous wastes are sometimes kept in below ground storage containers. When these containers leak, they can contaminate the soil and groundwater of the surrounding area. Contaminated water has been linked to impaired cognitive functioning and a range of other health problems (Gong et al., 2011). Figure 2.2 displays percentile rankings for census tracts in each of the focus districts. In several school districts, large disparities can be seen in the exposure to groundwater pollutants. In Los Angeles and Torrance Unified school districts for example, Blacks reside in census tracts with the worst levels of groundwater pollution while Whites in those school districts generally live in areas with among the lowest levels of groundwater threats.

Figure 2.2
Figure 2.2 Groundwater Emissions: Percentile Rankings of Census Tracts by District, 2018
Health and environment data were retrieved from the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen) Version 3.0, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), 2017. Groundwater threats, sum of weighted GeoTracker leaking underground storage tank sites within buffered distances to populated blocks of census tracts. The State Water Resources Control Board maintains a database of places where groundwater may be threatened by certain sources of pollution and scores for sites that threaten groundwater quality are added together for each census tract.
Figure 2.3
Figure 2.3 Asthma: Percentile Rankings of Age Adjusted Rate of Emergency Department Visits by District, 2018
Health and environment data were retrieved from the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen) Version 3.0, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), 2017. The indicator is the number of asthma emergency department visits per 10,000 people for 2011-2013 and was collected by The California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (CEHTP).

Asthma and low birth weight are two health conditions that have been directly linked to air and water pollution, and have been shown to disproportionately impact Black students and their families (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2009; Wolf et al., 2007). Both asthma and low birth weight are thought to be impacted by a complex interplay of genetics and environmental conditions. Several studies have shown that asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions among children are correlated with lower rates of school attendance and academic performance (Johnson et al., 2019; Wang et al., 2005). While asthma is relatively common in children, low-income and Black children are significantly more likely to visit emergency-rooms and/or be hospitalized for problems brought on by the condition (Public Health Institute & California Environmental Health Tracking Program, 2015). The rate of emergency room visits due to asthma is an indicator of both the prevalence of people in the population with severe or more acute problems, as well as possible ongoing exposure to environmental triggers.

Our findings reveal that the rate of emergency room visits prompted by asthma somewhat mirrors the findings relating to diesel particulates. There are large disparities in several of the focus districts. Figure 2.3 shows that in school districts such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Antelope Valley, census tracts containing the highest proportions of Blacks are also those in the 90th percentile or above for such emergency room visits. Whites in these same districts appear to be residentially distinct and live in census tracts with relatively low rates of asthma induced emergency room visits.

Figure 2.4
Figure 2.4 Low Birth Weight: Percentile Rankings by District, 2018
Health and environment data were retrieved from the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen) Version 3.0, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), 2017. The California Department of Public Health collects information on where low birth weight infants are born in California. The indicator is the percentage of low weight births, averaged over a seven-year period (2006-2012).

Our findings also show that within each district, Black students and their families reside in areas where there are relatively higher rates of low birth weight babies born. Figure 2.4 demonstrates that Antelope Valley, Torrance, and Los Angeles notably have both extreme spatial-racial disparities and are as well as contain census tracts that are highest percentile relative to other census tracts statewide.

It is important to note that districts with large racial disparities in environmental and health contexts tend to have higher proportions of Black students with poor academic outcomes. While schools can do very little to control the quality of air children breathe, or the water children drink, clearly such conditions have a profound impact on the overall health, well-being and development of young people, and subsequently their academic performance. To the extent that the burdens of pollution fall unevenly across Los Angeles County and within districts, these concerns should be included in comprehensive efforts to improve educational outcomes.


  1. The geographic area for each school district was examined to find census tracts with residential concentrations of Blacks (white residential concentrations were assessed for comparison). Selected census tracts with the highest numbers and concentrations were selected and connected with Enviroscan data to provide indicators of the varied health and environmental contexts of students in each district.
    Health and environment data were retrieved from the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen) Version 3.0, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), 2017. This indicator uses Air Resources Board (ARB) data on emissions from on-road (trucks and buses) and off-road (ships and trains, for example) sources. Diesel emissions are available at a 4x4km grid statewide. The gridded emissions are then converted to census tracts.