UC Berkeley News
Press Release

UC Berkeley Press Release

Survey finds Latina women and children in agricultural area living in poor housing

– A new study led by University of California, Berkeley, researchers finds that many Latina women and their children in one of California's largest agricultural communities reside in crowded, dilapidated housing infested with pests.

The results, to be published today (Wednesday, July 27) in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, were based upon detailed, individual home inspections of 644 homes in Salinas Valley, Calif.

Mold on ceiling
Researchers found extensive damage from water leaks and mold, such as the kind pictured above, in the homes of many Latino residents in Salinas Valley, California. (Photo by Asa Bradman/UC Berkeley)

Of the homes surveyed, 58 percent had peeling paint, 43 percent had mold, 25 percent had water damage and 11 percent had rotting wood. The inspections also revealed evidence of cockroaches and rodents in 60 percent and 32 percent of homes, respectively.

The study demonstrated that housing disrepair increased the likelihood of cockroach and pest infestations, which were also associated with increased home pesticide use. Housing disrepair contributed to a cycle of unsanitary home environments and to children's exposure to pesticides and allergens, the authors said.

While studies of this type have been conducted in inner-city neighborhoods, the researchers point out that less attention has been paid to low-income families in agricultural areas. This study focused on a particularly vulnerable population: pregnant Latina women and their children.

"This is one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind on housing quality in an agricultural community," said Asa Bradman, associate director of the Center for Children's Environmental Health Research at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health, and lead author of the paper. "These results are especially critical for the health of young children, who spend the vast majority of their time indoors at home."

Study participants were recruited through the Clínica de Salud and the Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, both of which serve a predominantly low-income Latino population. More than 90 percent of participants were below 200 percent of the U.S. poverty level. Most homes were visited twice, and all assessments were conducted in either Spanish or English.

The researchers said these findings are important because studies have linked poor housing conditions to a variety of health problems. Families in old, deteriorating homes are disproportionately affected by lead poisoning and injuries due to household accidents. Mold and cockroach infestations have been linked to higher rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments among children.

One of the most surprising findings for the researchers was that the number of people living in one dwelling was, on average, 20 times higher than the national average.

"The level of crowding was shocking," said co-author Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Children's Environmental Health Research. "Nearly four out of 10 homes sheltered 1.5 persons per room. This presents a serious health concern because it increases the risk for the spread of such infectious diseases as tuberculosis. It's especially problematic for a population in which many people do not have regular access to medical care."

In 1991, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched the Healthy Homes Initiative in recognition of housing quality as an environmental problem affecting the health of children.

"I'd argue that the federal government should quantify housing quality as a risk factor, along with tobacco smoke, for health in children," said Bradman.

Bradman said this study puts hard numbers to the housing problem among a low-income, agricultural population. "This study highlights the housing conditions for the very poorest in our country in a population that is not well studied," he said. "This adds to the growing evidence that residents in an agricultural community need better access to healthy housing."

The researchers say that given links between poor quality housing and increased health risks to children, existing programs to address adverse housing conditions should be strengthened. They also recommend programs to strengthen renters' ability to negotiate housing improvements with landlords, as well as construction of high-quality, affordable housing.

Co-authors of the study include researchers from UC San Francisco, the California Department of Health Services, and the Clínica de Salud del Valle Salinas. The study was part of the UC Berkeley Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS), a longitudinal birth cohort study investigating environmental exposures and children's health in an agricultural community.

This research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute of Environmental Health Services.