Assessment of Air Quality Related Chronic and Infections Diseases in Southern New Mexico

This page is a summary of a much longer study. Read the full Assessment Report.

The Consortium of the "Land-based Sources of Air Quality Contaminants in the Binational Border Region of Southwestern New Mexico, Northwestern Chihuahua and West Texas" project is engaged in the characterization of air quality and its effects on health in the New Mexico border region. The inhalation of air contaminants is shown to be related to respiratory and cardiovascular disorders including asthma and heart attack. Furthermore, infectious diseases in the border communities may be related to air quality because of the presence of bacterial and fungal species in the soil and air quality-induced susceptibility.

To meet the objectives of this effort, it is important to obtain baseline information on the state of health and risks factors of the region through acquisition and analysis of available indicators. The analysis is concentrated on the Doña Ana, Grant, Hidalgo, Luna, Otero and Sierra counties in New Mexico (border counties, hereafter). Health status indicators of total mortality (deaths) and air quality related diseases are analyzed. These include Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Asthma, Heart Attack and Stroke. Furthermore, infectious diseases such as Influenza, Pneumonia, Pertussis and Coccidioidomycosis are examined.

Community Description


The southern New Mexico study area covers a total area of approximately 25,057 square miles. The Regional Health Profile analysis is concentrated on the Doña Ana, Grant, Hidalgo, Luna, Otero and Sierra counties, known in this study as the border counties.

It is interesting to note the distribution of the population within each county, at least in terms of county seat population. In four of the counties (Hidalgo, Luna, Otero, and Sierra), over half of each county’s population reside in the county seat, which implies sparse population throughout the rest of the county’s area. This is striking in Otero County, which has a total area of 6627 square miles, with 54% of the population residing in Alamogordo. Alamogordo is the home of Holloman Air Force Base, which is no doubt a factor here. In addition, these distributions are related both to terrain, climate, and economic situations in each county.

Comparison Table of NM Border Counties.
Table 1. Comparisons of Border Counties in New Mexico

There are 344,521 residents (13.8 residents/sq. mile) in the border counties, accounting for 15% of the state's population. Doña Ana County is the second most populated county in the state with 209,233 residents (54.9 residents/sq. mile) and Hidalgo County is the sixth least populated in the state with 4,894 residents (1.4 residents/sq. mile). Most of the residents are living along the Las Cruces-Sunland Park corridor and the cities of Alamogordo, Anthony and Silver City. The population is increasing steadily with an average of 4,015 residents per year since 2002. The population growth rate since 2002 (1.23%) was comparable to that observed for the State of New Mexico (1.31%).

Key Findings About the Community

  • The border counties are experiencing a population growth of about 4,000 new residents every year. The population is mostly residing in urbanized communities, with the Las Cruces/Sunland Park corridor being the 2nd largest in the State of New Mexico.
  • About 1 in 4 residents are ages 0-19 and more than 1 in 10 residents are ages 65+; overall 3 in 10 residents are insusceptible to air quality population groups.
  • More than 50% of adults have a high school diploma, but less than 25% have a university degree, which usually increases the income.
  • The unemployment rate is less than 10%; however,1 in 5 residents live in poverty, with average household/family incomes being lower than state’s averages. Figure 1 shows the income and poverty levels for the border counties. The aqua bars show percentage of population of a county living in poverty. The red line shows the per capita income and the blue line shows the household income.
Poverty and Income graph of NM Border Counties
Figure 1. 2010 Income and Poverty Levels per Geographical Area
  • The counties are diverse communities, with Hispanics being the majority. Table 2 shows the population counts for 2010 by race/ethnicity.
Table of race/ethnicity in NM Border Counties
Table 2. 2010 Population in Border Counties by Race/Ethnicity
  • More than 20% of residents speak a language other than English at home. Figure 2 shows the percentage of people who speak a language other than English (aqua bar), who have a high school degree (blue bar) and who have a university degree (orange bar) in the border counties.
Bar graph of language and graduation rates in NM Border Counties
Figure 2. Spoken Language and Graduate Rates per Geographical Area

Community Health Status Key Findings

  • Although the mortality rates are decreasing, most of the border counties have higher mortality rates than the state average mortality rate.
  • African American females have the highest mortality rate, followed by White and Hispanic Males.
  • The leading causes of death are cancer and heart disease; respiratory diseases account for more than 6% of deaths for adults. Birth defects is the leading cause of infant deaths, but injuries (unintentional and suicide) represent more than 60% of young adults deaths. Table 3 shows the leading causes of death.
Table showing leading causes of death in NM border counties
Table 3. Leading Causes of Death in the Border Counties
  • Mortality and hospitalization rates from COPD and asthma are above the state rates; mortality rates decreased moderately over the years, hospitalizations rates increased dramatically due to complications of COPD and asthma (secondary diagnosis). Young females are hospitalized more often for COPD and asthma than males, with at least 3 in 20 teenagers with asthma. Figure 3 shows the COPD rates.
Bar graph showing the age adjusted mortality rates for COPD in the NM border counties
Figure 3. Age-adjusted Mortality Rates for COPD for 2006-2010
  • Mortality rates from heart failure in Grant and Otero counties are among the highest in the state (27.9 per 100,000 people); hospitalization rates are above the state average. A peak on both mortality and hospitalization rates is observed in 2005-2006 with a quick decline since then.
  • Stroke mortality and hospitalization rates are comparable to the state average with a moderate declining trend.
  • One-third of hospitalized cases of coccidioidomycosis in New Mexico since 1999 were observed in border counties; however, none of them died.
  • Residents in border communities were exposed to unhealthy concentrations of airborne particles and elevated concentrations of ground-level ozone over the past ten years. The levels of particulate matter are among the highest in the nation, and they exceed the threshold concentrations set by US EPA for the protection of human health. For ozone, threshold concentrations were exceeded in the past; current levels are slightly below the threshold value.
  • At least 2 in 10 Hispanics and Native Americans have had fair/poor health and reduced mobility due to health reasons.
  • More than 30% of adults have high blood pressure and cholesterol, which is an increase over the past five years, mostly in those with low income. Figure 4 below shows the age-adjusted rates of doctor diagnosed asthma, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Bar graph showing the age adjusted doctor diagnosed diseases in NM border counties
Figure 4. Rates of Doctor-diagnosed Asthma, High Blood Pressure and High Cholesterol
  • The smoking frequency is reduced but not the percentage of active smokers.
  • Better health and reduced behavioral risks are observed for individuals/families with higher incomes.