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Language Barriers

There is a serious concern about the effect of language barriers on the accumulation of information about environmental health hazards in minority communities. Cultural diversity may be a serious barrier to health. For example, immigrants from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa distrust government and do not allow females to be addressed by other people. This may also apply to other groups. Also, when specific instructions or information needs to be given to a group of citizens in order to avoid environmental health hazards, language barriers may cause the citizens to misunderstand or not utilize the information to protect themselves. Community leaders may not have the resources or the information to teach the non-English-speaking members of their society how to avoid these hazards. Unfortunately, many minority groups including Latinos are living in areas with poor environmental conditions. Latino children disproportionately have asthma which has been caused or exacerbated by air pollution, both indoor and outdoor. Pregnant Latino women are subjected to more of these pollutants.

While pollution in the United States is a health risk for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, language, or country of origin, a high percentage of Latinos are exposed in urban and agricultural areas to higher levels of air pollution, unsafe drinking water, pesticides, and lead and mercury contamination. Approximately 1.5 million US Latinos live in unincorporated communities with substandard housing along the US-Mexico border. There is a lack of potable water and sewage treatment and therefore a serious risk of waterborne diseases such as giardiasis, hepatitis, and cholera. More than one third of US Latinos live in the Western states, where arsenic, industrial chemicals, and fertilizers can readily contaminate local drinking water supplies. About 88% of farm workers are Latinos who are exposed to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals, which can lead to cancer and other health effects. Hispanic children have blood lead levels twice as high as other children. (See endnote 34.) Some other cultures may promote the use of eye makeup for children. Unfortunately, lead has been found to be one of the ingredients in the makeup.

Mercury is a special problem because of consumption of large quantities of fish not only commercially caught but also individually caught. Because of language barriers, many of the individual fisherman are catching fish in contaminated waters, since these fishermen do not either hear about fish advisories or do not understand them. Certain religious and cultural practices create another route of exposure for mercury, which may be sprinkled indoors for religious reasons. Folk remedies, especially for indigestion or gastroenteritis, and cosmetics to make skin lighter may contain mercury compounds.

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