Environmental Justice for All

The residents of some neighborhoods in Richmond, California, awaken each morning with their senses fully engaged: They feel a familiar burning in their eyes and throats, smell the acrid stench of sulfur, and hear the endless rumble of diesel trucks. And they find their homes once again blanketed with a thin coating of soot.

Richmond spreads out across a peninsula separating San Pablo Bay, a shallow tidal estuary, from San Francisco. Once ranching country, the city has been transformed over the past century into a highly industrialized urban landscape, with the second largest oil refinery on the West Coast helping to define its silhouette. Richmond is also home to a chemical plant, a metal fabrication factory, and a power plant. Two major train lines form a nexus there, and several interstates and one parkway snake through the city. The emissions from all those industries and transit lines seep into the homes—and lungs—of residents.

“In Richmond, paint peels off houses and cars far faster than anywhere else I’ve seen,” says Carla Perez, a community organizer and director of the Northern California Program of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE). “Soot collects everywhere. It’s not surprising that Richmond has the county’s highest hospitalization rate for asthma.”

Just twenty miles to the west, perched on the California coast, is Bolinas, a town with a population one-hundredth that of Richmond. A nearly reclusive community, Bolinas has no heavy industry. There, residents can awaken to the scent of clean salt air and the sounds of birdsong and ocean swells.

CBE, an environmental health and justice organization in California, has joined forces with Silent Spring Institute and Brown University to study the patterns of exposure to chemical pollutants in Richmond and Bolinas. From June to October 2006—with protocols, equipment, and training provided by Silent Spring Institute—CBE staff members collected air and dust samples both inside and outside 40 homes in the Liberty/Atchison Village area of Richmond. They also took samples from 10 homes in Bolinas.

The collaborators are now comparing the samples in the two communities in an effort to determine whether residents of Liberty/Atchison Village are at higher risk for exposure to a number of pollutants that have been implicated as hormone disruptors or as potential causes of breast cancer. The samples are being tested for approximately 100 chemicals used in consumer products or found in polluted outdoor air.

“We’re focusing on endocrine-disrupting compounds because of the role they may play in breast cancer and other diseases,” says Julia Brody, executive director of Silent Spring Institute. “This study is a critical step in a series of investigations that need to be conducted to determine how the chemicals we’re exposed to in our homes may be affecting our health.”

The project builds on the Institute’s previous work on Cape Cod, in which researchers conducted the most comprehensive assessment to date of endocrine disruptors in homes. During the next two years Silent Spring Institute researchers will be analyzing the California samples; looking for the diesel, refinery, and transportation signatures of the pollutants; and sharing their findings with community activists who are seeking to mitigate the causes of the pollution. Already preliminary data reveal disparities between the chemical burdens in Richmond and Bolinas.

The contrasts between the two communities are more than environmental, though. Richmond is largely low-income, with a predominance of Latinos and African Americans, while Bolinas is relatively affluent and primarily white.

“Statistics on environmental injustices in the United States are alarming—and enduring,” Perez says. People of color compose 56 percent of those living in neighborhoods within 1.8 miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities, for example, and 69 percent of neighborhoods with clustered facilities. Even when socioeconomic and other non-racial factors are taken into account, race remains a significant independent predictor of the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities.

“We’re now working with grassroots leaders, community members, and health professionals to discuss the results and the health impacts of chemical exposure,” Perez adds. “We’re developing strategies for how the community can use the results to support its demands for pollution control and reduction. Ultimately, we want to identify ways to reduce exposure and to provide data that will help the community fight for its rights.”

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is sponsoring the three-year project, which provides a good example of Silent Spring Institute’s preferred approach to its work: building on the synergy of collaborating scientists and activists.

“Participating in this study is giving me the opportunity to find out what chemicals I’m being exposed to without my consent,” says Vicki Sawicki, a member of CBE and an Atchison Village resident who allowed her home to be studied. “I have many friends and family members with cancer, and I feel there’s a high probability that their illnesses are environmentally caused. We have to stop the constant assault on our health.”