Toxic Trends

A map showing the sensitive locations (such as daycares and schools) and polluters in the Hegenberger Corridor. Communities for a Better Environment mapped the locations as part of their “Freedom to Breathe” campaign. Courtesy Communities for a Better Environment.

Nehanda Imara got a call from a grade school principal, who “wanted to know what that funny smell was going across their playground.” Imara, a community organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, found the answer: a metal refinery blowing toxic emissions directly downwind to the playground.The grade school— Acorn School—is located in “Deep East” Oakland. At Acorn, 77 percent of the 250 students are eligible for the free lunch program and all students are of color.

Environmental justice” is a term used to describe equal access to healthy habitat. What Acorn School experienced was an act of environmental injustice, common in poor communities where people lack resources to protect themselves. Such injustices sometimes occur because of loopholes in pollution regulation: when city officials rezone the land near pollution sources, low income families can find themselves in toxic habitats.

The Hegenberger Corridor that runs through Deep East Oakland is one such example. It connects the Port of Oakland to I-880, used by diesel trucks to move goods out of the area, driven through rezoned neighborhoods, bypassing affluent communities in the Oakland hills.

Real estate values in rezoned industrial areas a low. And the Alameda County Public Health Department estimates that  20 to 40 percent of East Oakland lives under the federal poverty rate. These families experience combined air, water, and ground pollution, which add up to what CBE calls “cumulative impacts” described here by Imara.

Cumulative impacts explain why asthma is so widespread in East Oakland. Childhood asthma hospitalization rates in East Oakland are 150 to 200 percent higher than in neighboring Alameda County, and the life expectancy in the area is seven years less than the rest of county.

From 2006 to 2007, the Oakland Unified School District surveyed sixth graders and nearly 20 percent of the students said they had been diagnosed with asthma. The national average for such diagnoses is around 10 percent.

Kenneth Easley’s nephew, an Acorn student, suffers from asthma. Easley says this propelled him to get involved with community coalitions for environmental justice. “You want to learn how to fight against it, but what can you do other than join forces,” he asked.

Joining forces is exactly what inspired Nehanda Imara to start the “Freedom to Breathe” campaign. Imara said CBE focused on air quality because “breathing good air is a human right.” Local youth and faith groups joined with CBE members to record pollution figures in their area.

Faith groups have long been involved with the environmental justice movement. In 1987, the United Church of Christ issued “Toxic Wastes and Race” — a report born out of the environmental injustice experienced in Warren County, NC. The group found that most facilities that handle toxic pollution were clustered in non-white communities. 20 years later, a follow-up report indicated that these toxic trends have only increased.

In Freedom to Breathe, groups mapped over 45 local pollution-sensitive places including daycare and senior centers. They learned that these sensitive areas were surrounded by more than 200 pollution sources. The groups also monitored particulate matter from diesel trucks that drove through and parked in the neighborhoods. According to California law, diesel trucks can idle no longer than five minutes in neighborhoods. Imara says that through the Freedom to Breathe initiative, residents documented trucks parked on their streets with engines that ran for over five hours.

“Every time we’ve done one of our community-based participatory studies, whether it was the first one–the mapping study–the air sampling study, or the truck monitoring, it continues to build more leverage for the community’s voice that we can take to decision makers,” Imara said.

Those decision makers can redesign urban neighborhoods to be healthy places for families and garner support for top-down legislation to support grassroots efforts. This policy is essential in the face of businesses reluctant to change. American Brass and Iron, the foundry polluting the playground, said it was “not interested” in talking about pollution in the Hegenberger corridor.
American Brass and Iron now releases most of its smoke at night. Though the residue is still on the playground, some parents and children breathe a little easier; at least those who don’t need an inhaler.

Sean Tokarz, a students in Simran Sethi’s journalism class at the University of Kansas, is learning to communicate complex issues via social networking. This is part of a series of posts from a class exploring the intersection of social media and social justice and using water and design as its primary lenses of inquiry.

Follow the conversation on twitter, #metropolisH2O.

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