The State of California has made efforts to alleviate the climate crisis, such as Governor Gavin Newsom’s Executive Order N-79-20 which requires all new vehicles to have net zero emissions by 2035. According to US Energy Information Administration (EIA), the state’s energy consumption levels are the second lowest per capita in the nation. The University of California system has amassed numerous sustainability awards that have placed it on the national environmental leadership map.
However, there are a significant amount of environmental hazards that compromise the health of Orange County residents despite these advances. These higher pollution levels are mostly seen in lower-income neighborhoods that are home to more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) residents.
According to the Orange County Environmental Educational Justice Fund (OCEJ), environmental racism is defined as the “disproportionate distribution of challenges faced by low-income BIPOC communities.” The organization strives to fight for environmental justice by “mobilizing and empowering marginalized members of the community” because these groups make up a significant portion of Orange County.
The OCEJ website says the county faces environmental issues such as declining air and water quality, lead contamination and a lack of open spaces. The higher burden of pollution placed on disadvantaged communities further compounds the local effects of environmental racism.
UCI Environmental and Occupational Health Professor Dr. Jun Wu studies air pollution exposure assessment, which focuses on the relationship between the impact of these environmental hazards on humans .
“I am particularly interested in examining health disparity issues, [such as] how low-income people [communities] and communities of color may be more exposed to environmental hazards, or less exposed, to environmental resources such as clean space,” Wu said.
A UCI-led study that Wu worked on explored the link between air pollutants and malignant brain cancer.
These pollutants are believed to have carcinogenic properties due to the inflammatory effect they have on the human body. The study found that exposure of rats to various forms of particulate matter (PM), which are pollutants composed of both solid and liquid components, triggers inflammatory stress and cellular cancer determinants called biomarkers. The expression of these factors accompanied a molecular change in the brain related to the activation of brain tumor pathways.
Researchers have found an association between prolonged exposure to increased levels of ozone, benzene and other particles and malignant brain tumors in Latino men.
Another example of environmental injustice in Orange County is soil contamination, particularly lead contamination in local communities. Although no data was collected on the health effects of lead contamination, Wu and his team found that soil in neighborhoods with less education and higher poverty rates had higher concentrations of lead. .
Residents without health insurance or those living in renter-occupied housing are also affected by high levels of lead in their soil. According to Wu, these disparities were seen within the city of Santa Ana alone, without even considering other cities in Orange County.
Above: Map of lead concentrations in OC soil, courtesy of OCEJ
Wu said the worst-hit neighborhoods also tend to house more children.
“There is no safety threshold for exposure to lead, but in areas [where] you have more children, you actually have higher soil lead exposures,” Wu said, referring to low-income neighborhoods in Santa Ana.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), childhood lead exposure can lead to brain and nervous system damage, stunted growth and development, and problems with behavior, learning, hearing and speech.
Research by Ab Latif Wani, Anjum Ara and Jawed Ahmad Usmani of Aligarh Muslim University explained that despite lead’s high toxicity, its unique chemical and physical properties, such as malleability and corrosion resistance, make it an effective material for construction and industrial use. .
According to these researchers, lead interferes with cognitive processes due to interference with cellular ion channels. The lead ion blocks voltage-gated calcium channels, which prevent the body from efficiently carrying the electrical impulses that power the heart and nervous system. Additionally, the team found that permanent amounts of lead in the blood, even at low levels, reduce children’s cognitive ability.
These effects underscore the urgency of addressing issues of environmental racism, as any level of lead exposure can exacerbate low education rates and other problems in these communities.
Wu’s department conducted another study in response to concerns raised by members of Santa Ana’s Madison Park Neighborhood Association about air pollution from the nearby Kingspan Industrial Corridor.
“They have locals just across the street [from] this industrial corridor and a primary school also across the street. So you can imagine [that] residents have great concerns,” Wu said.
An independent study led by UCI air pollution scientist Dr Shahir Masri, who studies the assessment and epidemiology of exposure to air pollution, found that at Inside the Kingspan Corridor, levels of PM 2.5 pollutants were on average seven times higher than levels outside, with some levels of pollution. exceeding the maximum threshold of PM 2.5 detectors. According to Masri, this level of pollution, which exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s “safe” designation, warrants 24-hour outdoor air monitoring because it can pose a public health concern.
The potential respiratory consequences of proximity to the industrial corridor began to appear outside of Kingspan, as evidenced by increased rates of asthma and asthma-related emergency room visits for surrounding residents.
” In this neighbourhood, [these rates are] quite high compared to Orange County average values,” Wu said.
Low-income communities in which these trends are seen are more vulnerable to the effects of environmental hazards because they tend to have higher rates of pre-existing health conditions, according to Wu.
Another major concern of Wu and other environmental epidemiologists is the impacts of climate change, and specifically heat waves.
Wu and his team analyzed 20 years of fire data in the state of California, and they found that census tracts with higher wildfire frequency and burned area had lower proportions of minority groups. .
“However, if we consider [Indigenous] populations, there is a greater proportion residing in heavily affected areas [areas]”Wu said.
These heavily impacted communities were also home to a high percentage of elderly residents.
These census tracts are mostly located in rural areas, where many residents lack a college education or access to a computer.
According to the study, these factors combined with environmental risks may mean that “disadvantaged families who cannot afford to live in urban areas are at increased risk of dangerous wildfires which can impact their health. and further exacerbate socio-economic inequalities”.
Lauren Le is a STEM apprentice for the Winter 2022 term. She can be reached at [email protected].