Hot summers are deadliest for black and brown communities. More than 9,000 Americans died from exposure to heat from 1979 to 2014, making it the leading cause of weather-related death in the U.S., and a disportionate share are people of color. For instance, almost half of all of New Yorkers who died of heat from 2000 to 2012 were black — double their share of the population.
In part, that is because black and brown communities are often used as sites for industry and waste management, which pump heat and contamination into the air. Grist published a report Wednesday on Hunts Point, a neighborhood in the Bronx that is 98 percent people of color and that the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance has listed as one of the “most heat-vulnerable communities.” According to Grist, Hunts Point is a major waste dump site — over a dozen waste stations are located in the 13,000-person neighborhood. It’s also a major truck route, creating a build-up of exhaust that heats the area. Meanwhile, Hunts Point lacks virtually any green space to help stabilize temperatures.
That’s the story for many of the other eleven New York neighborhoods most at risk for heat-related death and illness, all of them mostly communities of color, like Central Harlem and East Flatbush — an abundance of sewage plants meets busy roads, resulting in air that is both contaminated and overheated.
That pattern holds across the country. According to a 2013 report in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspective, black Americans nationwide were over 50 percent more likely than their white counterparts to live in areas that suffer from excessive heat. In Arizona, for instance, with every $10,000 increase in a community’s median wealth comes a one-half degree drop in temperature.
Even air conditioners are not always safe. Though AC units are unaffordable for many people, those in already polluted areas who do buy them can face the possibility of disease. In the Bronx, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, an airborne illness that AC units can inadvertently spread, have been reported each summer. In July 2015, over 57 Bronx residents became sick from Legionnaires’, and three died.
Another group especially at risk for heat-related death and illness — incarcerated people, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color. Many prisons lack proper air-conditioning units, and temperatures in some consistently clock in at over 100 degrees in the summer. In Texas, for instance, 22 inmates have died from heat stroke since 1998. In 2011, overheating killed Larry McCollum, an inmate who was serving a year for a forgery charge. “McCollum's tragic death was not simply bad luck, but an entirely preventable consequence of inadequate policies,” a judge concluded last year. Another inmate, Rodney Adams, convulsed and died less than two days after he arrived at an east Texas prison. His body temperature, according to The Marshall Project, was 109.9 degrees.
As the climate continues to warm, these racial disparities may only grow worse. Researchers are already predicting that New York City could see 3,331 deaths per year from heat by 2080 — a massive increase from the city's current annual total, 100 deaths.