Kevin Brown's most feared opponent on the sandlot or basketball court while he was growing up wasn't another kid. It was the polluted air he breathed.
"I would look outside and I would see him just leaning on a tree or leaning over a pole, gasping, gasping, trying to get some breath so he could go back to playing," recalls his mother, Lana Brown.
Kevin suffered from asthma. His mother is convinced the factory air that covered their neighborhood triggered the attacks that sent them rushing to the emergency room week after week, his panic filling the car.
"I can't breathe! I have no air, I'm going to die!"
The air in the neighborhood where Kevin played is among the least healthy in the United States, according to a little-known government research project that assigns risk scores for industrial air pollution in every square kilometer of the United States.
An Associated Press analysis of that data shows black Americans like the Browns are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.
Residents in neighborhoods with the highest pollution scores also tend to be poorer, less educated and more often unemployed than those elsewhere in the country, AP found.
"Poor communities, frequently communities of color but not exclusively, suffer disproportionately," said Carol Browner, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during former President Bill Clinton's administration when the scoring system was developed. "If you look at where our industrialized facilities tend to be located, they're not in the upper middle class neighborhoods."
With help from government scientists, AP mapped the risk scores for every neighborhood counted by the Census Bureau in 2000. The scores were then used to compare risks between neighborhoods and to study the racial and economic status of those who breathe America's most unhealthy air.
Clinton ordered the government in 1993 to ensure equality in protecting Americans from pollution, but more than a decade later, factory emissions still disproportionately place minorities and the poor at greater risk, AP found.
In 19 states, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to live in neighborhoods where air pollution seems to pose the greatest health dangers, the analysis showed.
Nearly half of Missouri's black population, for example, and just over half of the blacks in Kansas live in the 10 percent of their states' neighborhoods with the highest risk scores. Similarly, more than four of every 10 blacks in Kentucky, Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin live in high-risk neighborhoods.
And while Hispanics and Asians aren't overrepresented in high-risk neighborhoods nationally, in certain states they are. In Michigan, for example, 8.3 percent of the people living in high-risk areas are Hispanic, though Hispanics make up only 3.3 of the statewide population.
The average income in the highest risk neighborhoods was $18,806 when the Census last measured it, more than $3,000 less than the average for the rest of the nation. One of every six people in the high-risk areas lived in poverty, compared with one of eight elsewhere, AP found.
Unemployment was nearly 20 percent higher than the national average in the neighborhoods with the highest risk scores, while residents there were far less likely to have college degrees.
Research over the past two decades has shown that short-term exposure to common air pollution worsens existing lung and heart disease and is linked to diseases like asthma, bronchitis and cancer. Long-term exposure increases the risks.
The Bush administration, which has tried to ease some Clean Air Act regulations, says its mission isn't to alleviate pollution among specific racial or income groups but rather to protect all populations facing the highest risk.
"We're going to get at those folks to make sure that they are going to be breathing clean air, and that's regardless of their race, creed or color," Deputy EPA Administrator Marcus Peacock said.
Peacock said industrial air pollution has declined significantly in the past 30 years as regulations and technology have improved. Since 1990, according to EPA, total annual emissions of 188 regulated toxins have declined by 36 percent.
Still, Peacock acknowledged, "there are risks, and I would assume some unacceptable risks, posed by industrial air pollution in some parts of country."
In Louisville, Kentucky, Renee Murphy blames smokestack emissions in the "Rubbertown" industrial strip near her home for the asthma attacks her five children suffer. Her neighborhood, which is 96 percent black, ranks among the nation's highest risk from factory pollution.
"It's hard to watch your children gasp for breath," she said.
The Murphy family lives just a few blocks from Zeon Chemicals, which released more than 25,000 pounds of a chemical called acrylonitrile into the air during 2000. The chemical is suspected of causing cancer, and the government has determined it is much more toxic to children than adults.
Tom Herman, corporate environmental manager at Zeon, said the plant is reducing its emissions and is talking with area residents concerned about air quality to show that "there are real people working here concerned for them as well as our own health."
Air pollution "works with many other factors, genetics and environment, to heighten one's risk of developing asthma and chronic lung disease, and if you have it, it will make it worse," said Dr. John Brofman, director of respiratory intensive care at MacNeal Hospital in the suburban Chicago town of Berwyn.
"Evidence suggests that not only do people get hospitalized but they die at higher rates in areas with significant air pollution," he said.
Environmental experts say most pollution inequities result from historical land use decisions and local development policies. Also, regulators too often focus on one plant or one pollutant without regard to the cumulative impact, they say.
Citizens in high-risk neighborhoods have little legal recourse. They can file lawsuits under the 1964 Civil Rights Act but must prove intentional discrimination. And while some federal agencies ban environmental practices that result in discrimination, the Supreme Court says private citizens can't sue to enforce those rules.
Citizen complaints have had little effect. From 1993 through last summer, EPA received 164 complaints alleging civil rights violations in environmental decisions and investigated 47. Twenty-eight were dismissed; 19 are pending.
"Any time our society says that a powerful chemical company has the same right as a low income family that's living next door, that playing field is not level, is not fair," said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.