Study Finds Historically Redlined Communities Have Higher Rates of Asthma

According to new research from scholars at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco, the long-term effects of redlining may be impacting the current health of affected communities.

Redlining can be traced back to the Great Depression when, in response to overwhelming foreclosure rates, the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation classified neighborhoods in 239 U.S. cities based on the perceived security of investments, from green being “lowest risk” to red being “highest risk.” These designations, which were largely based on the race and social class of neighborhood residents, were for years used as justification to deny home loans and other forms of investment to these communities. Though these discriminatory lending practices are now illegal, and gentrification has affected the demographics of some redlined neighborhoods, they remain largely low-income and have a higher proportion of Black and Hispanic populations than non-redlined communities.

“Redlining maps that were drawn 80 years ago, partially on the basis of race, are still predictive of not only who lives in a neighborhood, but also what kind of health problems they are experiencing,” said Anthony Nardone, a medical student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, who led the analysis.

For the study, the research team used historic redlining maps to determine the ratings for individual census tracts in San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego. They then compared the ratings to air quality and health outcome data from each census tract from the CalEnviroScreen 3.0 database. The results found that residents of redlined neighborhoods visited the emergency room for asthma-related complaints 2.4 times more often than residents of green neighborhoods. Measures of diesel particulate matter in the air also averaged nearly twice as high in redlined neighborhoods compared to green neighborhoods.

The authors stress that air pollution in these areas may not be the only factor behind this disparity. The psychological stresses associated with living in these neighborhoods have also been linked to asthma and must be addressed in efforts to improve public health.

“If I had to say what’s the most important cause of health disparities in the U.S. and around the world, it’s poverty,” said John Balmes, a Berkeley professor of environmental health sciences, a UCSF professor of medicine, and director of the UC-Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. “We can do things around the edges, like improve air pollution, which we’re doing in many places. But while air pollution is contributing, the fact that these are poor neighborhoods without as many social assets as other neighborhoods is the underlying problem. People need decent incomes and jobs and affordable housing, and until we address those important social needs, we are going to continue to have a problem with the legacy of redlining.”

The full study, “Historic Redlining and Asthma Exacerbations Across Eight Cities of California,” was published in the American Journal of of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. It may be accessed here.

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