Burden of Proof; Using Research for Environmental Justice

Burden of Proof, cover photo

What are the legacy and limitations of science, research, technology and public health methodologies that underpin environmental policies?

How has dependence on existing paradigms of science perpetuated environmental racism?

To protect our communities, the EJ Movement must engage in the debate over environmental science and research, and become active participants in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.

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Introduction: Using Research for Environmental Justice

Credits, Vol. 11, No 2.

Editors Emeritus
Carl Anthony
Luke Cole

Editors & Publishers
Juliet Ellis
Peggy Shepard

Ziba Kashef

Guest Editors
Bhavna Shamasunder
Swati Prakash

Guillermo Prado, 8•2 Design Studio

Website Conversion
Editing and Design: Ben Jesse Clarke
Design: Tumis
Publishing Assistant: Mike Matz

Cover Photo
Jean Riordan

Race, Poverty & the Environment is published twice annually. Articles are © 2004 by their authors. Annual subscriptions are $20 for groups and individuals; $40 for institutions (or free for grassroots groups upon request). Send submissions and subscription checks to RPE, 436 14th Street, #1205, Oakland, CA 94612.

This joint issue of RPE is a project of Urban Habitat Program and WE ACT for Environmental Justice. It is supported by the Ford Foundation, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Beldon Fund.

RPE was first published n 1990 by Urban Habitat Program and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation’s Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. The views reflected in RPE are not necessarily those of the Editors or Urban Habitat.

Urban Habitat Advisory Board Member,  Winter 2004
Fred Blackwell (Co-Chair), Annie E. Casey Foundation
Joe Brooks (Co-Chair), PolicyLink
Tamar Dorfman, Corporation for Supportive Housing
Arnold Perkins, Alameda Public Health Department
Bernida Reagan, Port of Oakland
Belvie Rooks, Carrie Productions, Inc.
Omowale Satterwhite, Community Development Institute
James Tim Thomas, East Bay Habitat for Humanity

About This Issue


About this IssueWe’re excited to present the Winter 2004 issue of RPE, a joint project of Urban Habitat and WE ACT for Environmental Justice. As Urban Habitat was brainstorming the topic of science’s role in the EJ Movement, WE ACT had recently finished guest editing the April 2002 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a scientific journal that featured 24 articles about community-based research in communities of color. This joint RPE issue enables us to bring some of that research, as well as new ideas and case studies regarding the place of science and research in the EJ Movement to a broader audience of individuals and organizations working for social and environmental justice. 

The issue is designed to tackle some key questions: What are the legacy and limitations of science, research, technology and public health methodologies that underpin environmental policies? And how has dependence on existing paradigms of science perpetuated environmental racism? In the first section of the issue, three knowledgeable leaders address the role science has played in the EJ Movement. Azibuike Akaba of the Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project in Oakland presents the big picture, while Karen Pierce of Bayview Hunters Point Community Advocates (in San Francisco) and Shawna Larson of Alaska Coalition Against Toxics offer their local perspectives.

In the next section, WE ACT’s Environmental Health Director, Swati Prakash, examines the often unspoken problem of uneven power relations between communities of color and academic and government researchers and institutions. Her article suggests specific strategies for forming more equitable research partnerships. This analysis section includes an article that dissects the problem with the dominant scientific method used by mainstream scientists to evaluate environmental risks—risk assessments. Articles also offer an overview and analysis of community-based participatory research or CBPR.

This issue presents a number of model case studies that illustrate how communities and their allies have begun to “take back” science, including: a nuclear hazards management campaign initiated by Native Americans in the Southwest; a community-driven diesel study that resulted in concrete changes for residents of West Oakland; an asthma survey and campaign conducted in New York’s Chinatown; a coalition effort to block hog industry expansion near communities of color in North Carolina; and youth-driven research in Massachusetts. We round out this section with snapshots of additional models for EJ advocates to learn from and emulate.

As always, RPE ends with a look toward the future. In the final section, contributors discuss such strategies as “holistic” environmental decision-making that takes into account the social, cultural and spiritual practices of communities. In another article, the Environmental Health Coalition advances the idea of using research results to not only combat specific sources of toxics but to also promote the principle of precaution. Finally, the Golden Gate Environmental Law and Justice Clinic offers a list of standards for fostering more just environmental decision-making.

All in all, the issue serves as a call to action for low-income communities of color. To protect our communities, the EJ Movement must engage in the debate over environmental science and research, and become active participants in shaping the decisions that affect our lives.

From the Director's Desk

Scientific research and technology have been key tools in the struggle for environmental and social justice. Research and data interpreted by environmental justice activists have provided much of the evidence community advocates use to bolster claims of disproportionate environmental impacts on poor communities of color. Yet the EJ Movement has not fully embraced science.

While environmental health has been an important focus for poor communities, EJ groups haven’t typically been involved in the research because environmental health advocates and scientists tend to focus primarily on health outcomes and environmental inputs, and academic disciplines like toxicology, without an analysis of such factors as race and class. This problem leaves EJ activists torn between their need for science and their disappointment in it because it often comes from a perspective that discounts their experiences. 

On a national level, we have witnessed how politicians can distort or ignore even the most rigorous science (e.g. global warming, mercury emissions) for political and economic ends. Polluting industries can hire expensive scientists to prove their case while communities, lacking comparable resources, often don’t have the expertise or the opportunity to object. But when there are such rollbacks in environmental policy and a lack of enforcement, communities of color and low-income people are hit hardest.

We bring this issue to you at a time when environmental illnesses, such as asthma, are on the rise and the desire for data linking environmental factors to illnesses is growing. Because low-income people are most affected, they are at the forefront of demanding science that is more accountable to their everyday realities. Through techniques such as community-based participatory research, communities are not only gaining skills and greater capacity, but more tools that can be turned into action.

As we shift the research paradigm on the ground, we must also advocate with our representatives to make sure public policy supports the needs of affected communities. Decision-makers must adhere to guidelines for meaningful public participation in the process of conducting environmental impact reports and other findings that affect communities.

UH Update:

  • As part of our transportation justice campaign, UH recently helped organize a regional diesel meeting, “Ditching Dirty Diesel.” More than 100 EJ and asthma advocates gathered in Oakland to share strategies, build capacity, and identify core regional campaigns to address the burden of diesel pollution in our communities.
  • This fall, UH joined local leaders in supporting the reauthorization and enforcement of the Local Employment Program (LEP) ordinance in Richmond, California—largely a low-income community of color. Since 2001, LEP has called for the employment of Richmond residents in City-supported development projects.
  • In preparation for the 2005 World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, UH hosted discussion groups to inform local activists about the impact of global economic trends on communities of color worldwide. After hosting a public forum on globalization with allies at the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community at UC-Santa Cruz, we plan to raise funds to send a delegation from the Social Equity Caucus to the WSF.

We hope you enjoy this issue of RPE and welcome your feedback.

In solidarity,

Signature JRE

Juliet Ellis
Executive Director


Letter from WE ACT

Environmental justice is a global movement challenging the disproportionate burden of pollution and environmental degradation borne by communities of color and low-income people, and the egregious racial disparities health linked to these exposures. This issue of Race, Poverty and the Environment explores a theme of science, health and environmental justice that has increasingly sharpened the focus of WE ACT for Environmental Justice’s work. WE ACT is a New York City-based environmental justice organization dedicated to building community power to fight environmental racism and improve environmental health, protection and policy in communities of color.

This publication is the realization of a collaboration between WE ACT and Urban Habitat, two social justice organizations working in distinct regions of this country to explore a key tool and dynamic—science and technology —that has great impact on our ability to support the development of healthy, safe and sustainable communities.

WE ACT’s focus on science began when we realized that evidence-based organizing campaigns moved policymakers and empowered residents. We realized that the lack of scientific literacy, information, data, and context was a serious void that contributed to the systemic exclusion of communities of color from decision-making. community residents living in Harlem in the late 1980’s, we demanded health studies to assess the environmental exposures of residents living near the multiple diesel bus depots and sewage treatment plants that mar our neighborhood.

No officials responded to this call, so WE ACT, then an unincorporated volunteer group, began a process inquiry, outreach and relationship building that ultimately led to collaborative research with Harlem Hospital and the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health. In 1997, WE ACT was awarded our first Environmental Justice grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), who continues to support work reshaping and redirecting the environmental health research agenda to include the critical concerns of communities of color.

Our improved understanding and public communication about how the environment affects our community health has helped us successfully avert noxious land uses — such as a city marine waste transfer station that until this month was destined to open in West Harlem. We are also proactively creating healthy urban environments incorporating green and healthy building design principles to renovate an abandoned brownstone, and by participating in the creation and maintenance of Harlem on the River, a community-designed waterfront park.

As a movement, Environmental Justice has articulated a powerful vision of justice that places human health the center of environmental struggles. Yet the circle of funders embracing the notion that environmental health and environmental justice struggles are intimately linked remains small. Looking ahead to the future, we will continue to hold dialogue with the larger funding community about helping environmental justice organizations to reclaim the tools of science. The old paradigm that some groups organize, some do research, and some transform policy is slowly being augmented with an approach that builds the technical and research capacity of organized grassroots base to demand long-term policy change. As RPE contributor Azibuike Akaba states, our organizations “have taken the tools of research and technology and turned these into weapons and strategies that serve to defend our communities.”

In Unity,
Peggy M. Shepard

11-2 Signature Peggy Shepherd

Executive Director/Co-Founder WE ACT For Environmental Justice


Related Stories: 

Health Science and Environmental Justice

Health, Science, and EJ section break

Perspectives on the relationship between science, research and technology, and the environmental health and justice campaigns that are essential to communities.

Related Stories: 

Science as a Double-Edged Sword

Research has often rewarded polluters,
but EJ activists are taking it back.

By Azibuike Akaba

Historically, powerful and dominant institutions such as polluting industries have manipulated science to serve their own profit-making interests, with poor communities and communities of color paying the severe price in our health and well-being. Yet as more communities are learning, when science is “taken back,” it can also be a powerful tool to equalize the playing field and bolster our struggles for safe and healthy environments.

EJ and Science

The Environmental Justice Movement has come a long way in a short period of time. While people of color have been fighting for environmental justice for decades, recent media exposure has propelled EJ into the mainstream. Community struggles are receiving more attention in local news media and several large, traditional environmental groups have embraced the core concepts of EJ—that people of color are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards and that they should participate in decision-making that affects their communities. The EJ Movement has sent a strong and clear message that we have the right and ability to demand self-determination.

However, science is less commonly considered part of a community’s arsenal. We have embraced tools such as community forums, protest and legal action. Science, however, has often been seen as an arena in which our opponents have the upper hand.  The reasons for this are understandable. Science has been used by industry and the government, typically against our interests and safety. Furthermore, the industry-backed model of “innocent until proven guilty” clearly favors polluters over community safety.  Naturally, activists are turned off by science because they are accustomed to the “corporate institutional” approach to science.

Yet science can be a tool that community organizations use to realize our agenda for social and environmental justice. My work at Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) enabled me to use science on behalf of the community. By demystifying the science, advocates and community residents can learn to use science for their own benefit.

Science is Not Neutral

In 1996, I came to the Environmental Justice Movement after eight years of working in various technical and scientific capacities. When I was 22, I began working in an industrial shipyard as an industrial hygienist, where I was responsible for ensuring that factory employees of the shipyard—from workers re-moving asbestos and pipe-welders, to sheet metal workers and painters spraying and sandblasting the hulls of ships with organic solvents—were kept safe from occupational harm. This seemed a nearly impossible task in such a relentless work environment. It was here that I got my first taste of how people were exposed to environmental hazards. Later, I worked as a medical laboratory technician in an U.S. Army hospital and as a research scientist for a military research center. During these years, I gained a detailed understanding of the fragility of human biology and the effects of various environmental exposures on human health. I also grew to recognize the malleability of statistics and the unjustified claim that science and scientific studies are “objective” endeavors devoid of any biases on the part of those who stand to benefit from the research results.

With that background, I joined CBE and worked for the next seven years as a staff scientist. Whether I was researching ozone-depleting chemicals that were released into predominantly low-income communities and communities of color by private corporations, investigating troubling practices of the oil industry, helping communities conduct their own air monitoring, or critiquing Environmental Impact Statements, my work enabled me to use science to protect the interests of communities. 

In this capacity, I learned that modern science is not neutral. It often produces results skewed by the vested interests of the funders of science and research. Scientists tend to hold class privileges that often prevent them from identifying problems from a sociopolitical view-point. All too often, they see political action as detracting from their role as an objective scientist, resulting in a lack of accountability. For political reasons that stem from corporate or government funding, many scientists are careful not to criticize environmental pollution cases that are encumbered with race and class issues. Medical professionals working for government or industry can also be reluctant to speak out. Indeed there is significant self-censorship that emerges from the vested interests of those who define the agenda. Many mainstream scientists will work for any company that pays well and maintains their status, regardless of the merits of the research. It follows that the interests of the funders, the scientists and the potential market dictates the type of research and science that is produced, even science that claims to be produced in the “public interest.”

Reclaiming Science

The most common encounter with science for EJ communities is in the review of Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) or Statements. EIRs involve a process that allows companies to make a negative declaration, i.e., a statement that there is no significant adverse health or environmentally degrading impacts from the implementation of a project. Engineers and consultants typically write these huge technical documents to address the mitigating circumstances prescribed by the state and federal regulators. In order to assess such issues as air quality, health risk assessment, water quality, socioeconomic resources, needs versus benefits, and public health, communities often need independent auditing and their own technical experts to examine the EIR. More and more, EJ communities are successfully challenging EIRs by educating themselves and strategically promoting their own technical expertise.

For example, in 2002, the Sun Law Corporation proposed to build the Nueva Azalea Power Plant Project, a natural gas-fired combined cycle power plant, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in East Los Angeles. They were promising to “produce air cleaner from the 550 megawatt plant than you are already breathing.”[1] CBE intervened on behalf of existing neighbors of the site through the formal California Energy Commission (CEC) process in August 2000. We reviewed the EIR and determined that in spite of the claims of innovative pollution prevention technology, the plant would still contribute an additional 150 tons of particulates in a community that was already burdened with heavy industrial pollution and suffering from epidemic rates of asthma.
To protect the community, CBE had to fight the city and state legislators who had conflicts of interest and wanted the power plant. We organized, educated the community about the CEC process, health issues and the science of power plants. Then CBE launched a campaign to stop the power plant from being built. We won in spite of the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by Sun Law Corporation because of diligent work that included the use of scientific research. 

How else might we use science more strategically? Science is often viewed as information given to us by government agencies; we are just supposed to accept it as opposed to questioning it or generating it ourselves. However, new models of community-based research have allowed community organizers to strategically use science as a tool that provides vital information to support organizing campaigns. For example, in July 2000, residents of Albuquerque, New Mexico worked together to fight the Intel facility in their neighborhood. They documented “suspicious smells” and built a cheap but accurate air monitoring device out of a modified five-gallon plastic bucket that took a “snapshot” of the air quality instantly like a Polaroid camera. They collected data and used it to educate the public. As a result, they found over seven different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that cause cancer, respiratory illness and developmental harm to humans. The data led to stepped up enforcement by the New Mexico Depart-ment of the Environment, increased cooperation with the community on the part of Intel, and reduced emissions. 

Steps for increasing the research capacity of the EJ Movement:

•  We have to push for stronger roles in developing research questions by working with researchers and graduate students at the inception of research projects.
•  We must demand transparency in research.
•  We should know the projected outcomes of research.
•  We should know the sources of funding that supports research and science.
•  We, as poor communities and communities of color, have to push for and support more students of color, especially young women, to go to school for science-related professions.
•  We must advocate for a discipline of public interest science, one that establishes programs throughout the country in which young scientists are trained to promote public health and protect the environment.

Science and Social Justice

Communities in the United States and around the globe are increasingly using science, research and technology as part of their arsenal to fight for social justice. Science may not be appropriate for all campaigns, but it can be a tool to strategically strengthen our position when used properly. Although communities are rarely invited into the esoteric offices of government agencies and the industries they regulate to participate in major decisions, we have found ways to challenge corporate-driven science. EJ activists have taken the tools of epidemiology, environmental engineering, technology and community-based participatory research, and turned these into weapons and strategies that serve to defend our communities.

Because of these efforts, EJ advocates now work with scientists that introduce themselves and stay awhile in the communities they study. We have worked with graduate students to develop new research questions that are of use to the community, and have integrated the data collected by community members into final reports and public records. We have public representatives who walk down our streets, tour our neighborhoods, speak our language, and want to know how we feel and what we want to have cleaned up. The perspectives and experiences of working classes, low-income, people of color and Native Americans now have greater legitimacy. Our input makes for a more holistic view of public interests in public policy.

However, we are under no illusions—people of color are still living in the most polluted and impoverished neighborhoods in the country. We are still suffering a disproportionate amount of ills from diesel emissions, power plants and multiple chemical exposures. For these reasons, when we are not welcomed, we demand to sit down at the decision-making table. We demand respect for our cultural traditions, local knowledge and common sense. While fighting to retain our community integrity, we have pored over legal and technical documents marred with our blood, sweat, tears and grease stains. We have trained ourselves to become scientists, policy analysts and experts. Because of these efforts, we can now promote our own scientists, influence their curriculum, and create institutions that develop science in our best interest. And, at the same time, we can continue to corral the current system and steer it in a direction that benefits us.

Azibuike Akaba is community technical assistance coordinator for the Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project (www.neip.org) in Oakland.


  1. CBE letter to California Energy Commission quoting Sun Law executive.



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Related Stories: 

Science: More Harmful than Helpful?

As an Alaska Native, I spend my summers subsistence hunting and fishing in preparation for the long, cold winter months. It’s what my ancestors have been doing for centuries. But today, like many Native Alaskans, who make up 40 percent of all tribes in the United States, I have concerns about the safety of my traditional foods. I worry about the tumors, pus sacs and lesions I see on the moose, caribou and other animals. But because most tribal people rely on traditional foods for 80 percent of their food needs, we are sometimes forced to consume these foods despite our worries about possible contamination and disease.
The village elders I speak to in my travels as an environmental justice coordinator for Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and the Indigenous Environmental Network say it did not used to be this way. But like the animals, the people are increasingly getting sick. Our community members suffer with cancers, diabetes, endometriosis, miscarriages, and low-birth-weight babies that were once unheard of. The environment is changing, too, and people attribute these changes to global warming. As the ice melts, traditional hunters are falling through the ice, resulting in a growing number of deaths and a further decrease in traditional food supplies.

Though community members know that the changes in our traditional foods and human illnesses are linked, government scientists continue to deny it. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study of salmon in the south central region of Alaska found toxins such as pesticides and PCBs in the fish. The tribal communities believed that they finally had the evidence to link toxins in fish to cancer in humans. But because the EPA relies on a “risk assessment” method that, among other flaws, bases its assumptions on the fish consumption habits of 170-pound white males, they offered us false assurances that the fish were safe.

For that reason, I don’t believe that the mainstream research model has any place in the environmental justice movement. To get the information communities seek, ACAT encourages communities to rely primarily on traditional knowledge. We utilize Western science as a tool when it supports that knowledge. A few years ago, we partnered with researchers at the State University of New York in Albany to conduct a PCB study on St. Lawrence Island. Community members had their blood tested for toxins; results showed that residents had PCB levels that were several times higher than what’s considered safe even by EPA standards. It was a com-munity-driven project that gave residents ownership over the unsettling information and how it would be used to inform tribal people.

In Alaska most tribes depend on traditional knowledge passed down from our elders as a form of “science.” While Western science tends to separate and break things down, we know that we can’t separate the air from the water from the soil and from our future generations. Our elders often say, “what you do to the earth you do to yourself.” It’s their wisdom that forms the basis of community-driven problem solving and action.

Shawna Larson is environmental justice coordinator for Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Related Stories: 

Science on Our Side?

By Karen Pierce

In 1999, the Port of San Francisco proposed to issue leases to a number of cement mixing companies, concrete crushing companies and a tour bus company on their land located in Bayview Hunters Point. Bayview, a largely low-income African-American community, is home to two Superfund sites, 100 brownfield sites and a sewage treatment plant that handles 80 percent of the City’s solid wastes. Appalled about the new development plans, neighborhood residents attended a Port Commission meeting to object. As a result, the Port agreed to having a Supplemental Environmental Impact Report (SEIR) conducted by the City’s Department of Public Health (DPH).

During the assessment process, Port and public health authorities acknowledged that the neighborhood was already burdened with businesses and activities that release pollution in the form of particulate matter at a much higher rate than in any other neighborhood in San Francisco. There was also general acknowledgment that the neighborhood had the highest rate of hospitalizations for asthma of any neighborhood in the city. With those facts agreed to, we expected that the SEIR would find that the proposed activities should not be allowed because they would bring additional pollution, particularly diesel burning vehicles, into the neighborhood. 

The DPH scientists gathered information on the proposed additional vehicle trips in and out of the neighborhood. They looked at existing air-quality data. They reviewed neighborhood hospitalization records and cancer rates. They analyzed proximity to residential uses. They looked at prevailing winds. In other words, they gathered the evidence. 

The report, issued in 2000, found that the proposed activities would not create an undue risk to public health nor be a substantial detriment to the neighborhood, and the Port was allowed to go forward with its plan. Why did this happen? One possible reason is that one city department did not want to oppose another department. Furthermore, a few years earlier DPH had opposed a co-generation plant proposal, along with millions of dollars in rent to the Port. This latest decision may have been a way of compensating for the lost revenue.

At the present time, through hard work and good advocacy, neighborhood residents have succeeded in keeping the tour bus company off of Port property (but not out of the neighborhood). Concerned residents raised issues and demanded additional mitigation for so long that the bus company had to look for alternative space. However, we have not been able to keep any of the other Port leases from moving forward. We believe that while the science was on our side, politics was on the side of business and income to the city.

Science and research can strengthen our calls for environmental justice, and we must continue to ask for data, demand participation in all phases of research, and speak out against flawed conclusions. But because decisions affecting communities like Bayview are often influenced by politics, we can’t allow ourselves to get too distracted by battles over data. Science cannot replace the organizing and advocacy we must continue to do to protect our communities. 

Related Stories: 

EJ Leading the Way

Why communities must initiate environmental research

By Ayanna King

African Americans living in the eastern corridor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania have long been concerned about environmental health and justice issues such as transportation, pollution and health problems like asthma. In 2002 and 2003, the Pittsburgh  Transportation Equity Project (PTEP), a community-based  Initiative that seeks to empower African Americans, decided to conduct an air monitoring study near a local public school, Reizenstein Middle School, located a block away from the Port Authority bus garage. To determine local air quality, particularly the concentration of particulate matter, in the community, we sought the help of three groups: East End Neighborhood Forum, Group Against Smog and Air Pollution (GASP), and Chatham College toxicology students. GASP, a nonprofit citizen's group, trained the Chatham students to monitor the air in different sites on different days. The students also collected research on asthma and diesel particulate emissions.

At the end of the study, Chatham students produced a report stating that on the days the air was monitored, particulate matter measured significantly higher than the federal standard for particulates. To amplify these findings, PTEP, along with a Chatham student, conducted a diesel survey to determine factors such as the asthma prevalence among children in the community and their proximity to dieselemitting buses. To date, we've collected about 280 surveys from residents and found that of the 68 percent who filled in the information regarding children, 35 percent had children with asthma or other respiratory illness. We also learned that residents were not familiar with the impacts of diesel. To educate the community, we created a user-friendly diesel fact sheet (www.ptep.org/projects/diesel_factsheet.pdf) and have planned to host five community forums in different neighborhoods to get feedback on how to proceed.

PTEP does not only do research for evidence of environmental impacts; we also use it to build better relationships in the community and help residents understand how to get resources. Research results have been helpful in introducing issues—such as civic engagement, economic issues and bus ridership—and building coalitions. Data is also beneficial in talking to legislators so that they can have a better understanding of the problems facing their constituencies.

It's essential for the environmental justice community to build our research capacity and lead in using science to protect communities. Where low income and people of color are being treated unfairly and not represented in decision-making about transportation, health care, education or land use, we have to make certain that our evidence of disproportionate impact is rigorous, statistical and able to capture cumulative factors as well as historical context. Armed with these facts, we can more powerfully demonstrate the need to protect low-income groups who have historically been used as dumping grounds.

If we don’t lead in doing our own research, industry and government entities will continue to control science and how it is interpreted and used. Today, the foundation of environmental justice is being attacked from every angle, so we must become
more strategic in terms of research in order to avoid losing further ground in the struggle for equity and justice.

Ayanna King is chief executive officer and president of Ayanna’s Consulting & Concepts, which provides clients with expertise on community development, strategic plans, and nonprofit/corporate management. She was founder and executive director of the Pittsburgh Transportation Equity Project for three years.
Related Stories: 

The Debate Over Science

The Debate over Science section break
Analysis of key barriers to sound environmental health science, plus two reports on community-based participatory research.
Related Stories: 

Power, Privilege and Participation

Meeting the challenge of equal research alliances

power, privilege and participation Over the past decade a growing number of organizations engaged in environmental justice struggles have recognized the need to bolster their capacity to investigate links between environmental exposures and health problems. In the face of the enormous scientific resources of polluters (and in some cases government agencies), it is increasingly difficult to make the claim that disproportionate environmental exposures in communities of color are linked to racial disparities in health. Corporations and government agencies, with the backing of well-paid scientists, often claim there is no proof. Consequently, many community-based organizations have been backed into a corner of having to defend our position that environmental racism does indeed exist. As a result, a growing number of these organizations are seeking to access the resources of academic institutions to strengthen our struggles for justice.

As a response to this dilemma, WE ACT for Environmental Justice has created several community-based research alliances with the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health in Northern Manhattan. We’ve established these alliances as a means of adding scientific and other expertise to our local organizing campaigns, and of building community

knowledge, capacity and leadership. Over the years, our collaborations with various researchers at Columbia have enabled us to measure air pollution at various street corners in the community and show a correlation between diesel traffic and black carbon pollution; to assess the short-term impacts of air pollution on the respiratory health of high school students at three New York City schools; and to measure the effect of in-utero (before birth) environmental exposures on the heath of newborn babies. Most importantly, WE ACT and community residents have taken these research results directly to elected officials and others in powerful positions in order to demand cleanup of polluted air in communities of color in Northern Manhattan.

The relationships we’ve created with Columbia researchers have evolved over a decade of both cooperation and struggle. One of the biggest challenges has been overcoming the inherent inequality in power that exists between an academic institution like Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, and a community-based organization (CBO) like WE ACT. Whereas the term “partnership” is increasingly used, in the spirit of community-based participatory research (CBPR), to describe relationships between universities or colleges and CBOs, it’s often done so without acknowledgment of the inherent inequalities between these distinctly different entities.

While CBOs and universities may share an interest in CBPR, they have distinctly different histories, capacities, and sets of resources available to them. These differences add up to significant disparities in power. These disparities are usually not acknowledged at the beginning of a potential research relationship, or are obscured by mutual optimism in the partnership’s ability to overcome structural inequalities between collaborating institutions. However, these inequalities emerge as academic researchers assert the authority to secure funding, define the research problem and methodology, conduct the research, assess findings, and write and publish findings. Communities are often left with information but no more skills or capacity than they had initially.

Invisible Inequities

Differences in power begin with a difference in access to financial resources, including both overall institutional budgets and shared grants. For example, imbalances in overhead rates (the percentage of a grant that goes towards basic organizational costs like rent, phone and electricity bills) mean that academic institutions often receive a disproportionate share of joint grants. Due to a difference in salary structures between CBOs and universities, when salary is used as a literal estimation of the worth of each partner’s time, the community organization often emerges as the lesser-paid entity. This problem is compounded by the unfortunate impression that community knowledge and expertise is not “worth” the same as that of formally trained researchers. The existence of many unfunded community advisory boards for research projects across the nation illustrates the persistence of this exploitative belief.

To further complicate these financial challenges, the portion of shared research grants that do go to a community organization is often a significant proportion of their total budget. This creates a financial incentive among CBOs to continue the research relationship. The resulting financial dependence on research grants may undermine an organization’s efforts to stay “on mission” and exercise the autonomy to say no to new research ideas posed by their academic allies, even when those projects are only tenuously related to the justice goals of the community organization.

A less obvious form of power imbalance emerges when institutional privileges mirror and amplify race and class privileges among the individuals involved in a research effort. Many organizations comprised of and representing communities of color find themselves at the research table with formally educated, middle- and upper-class, overwhelmingly white re-searchers. The trappings of formal education go far beyond substantive knowledge, often manifesting as assertiveness in one’s personal communication style, a firm belief in one’s understanding of what’s in the community’s “best interest,” a sense of entitlement to make decisions for the group, or a sense of entitlement to the time of the community organization’s staff. In the worst cases, researchers not only passively benefit from their privilege, but also actively exercise it to further their own career or research goals.

Although this imbalance is somewhat alleviated when the research partners are people of color, class privilege remains an obstacle. Furthermore, whatever the identities of participating individuals, individual differences in privilege must be understood in the context of institutional differences in access to resources and opportunity. Race and class privilege remain the elephants in the room for many research endeavors, with few tools or incentives to encourage members of new research alliances to squarely address the inequities of these and other forms of privilege.

Making The Relationship Work

Like any meaningful commitment between two distinct entities, the establishment of true partnerships in the realm of research requires a great deal of care and a deliberate investment of resources. Despite being among the most crucial ingredients for successful ventures, thoughtful attempts to equalize power are often the most easily overlooked. As starting points for establishing and maintaining healthy research relationships between academic and community partners, we recommend the following guidelines:

Common goals
Community-university research collaborations often launch projects ambitiously assuming that they have a shared goal, such as documenting environmental exposures or health status in a given community. Several years down the line many of these collaborations come to find that their goals are not so common after all, or that a single shared goal is not sufficient to hold the research relationship together. Articulating and agreeing on a shared set of goals—as well as identifying individual goals and agreeing to support one another on reaching those goals—is an important first step in building a strong structural foundation for collaborative research.

Written principles of collaboration
Drafting principles of how two (or more) entities will work together is a key ingredient for a healthy relationship. Furthermore, developing a well thought-out, written document is often the best way a CBO can assert its own power, and safeguard against the many subtle ways that power differences play out between individuals over the course of time. Principles of collaboration ideally include the respective values and goals of participating organizations, as well as the shared vision and goals of the collaboration.

The key components of these principles should discuss, at a minimum, items such as: communication (both internal and external); decision-making; project management and oversight: financial arrangements; “proprietary” issues such as who has the right to do what with the research results; and how community capacity will be built to truly understand and utilize the research results to support organizing or policy advocacy. These principles should be signed by the equivalent of a principal investigator or executive director on both sides, and also be included in the written work contract or subcontract between the university and the CBO to give it the weight of law.

Mutual respect and trust
Initial trust-building measures include reciprocal “orientations” to each participant’s respective world. For example, WE ACT invites our academic research partners on a Toxic Tour of Northern Manhattan to orient them to the often-invisible environmental and social realities of community residents. It’s important to us that researchers feel a sense of investment in the community we are working and living in, and that the research has a “face” of various community residents and leaders, to help give the study a sense of life and spirit. We extend this orientation to include an overview of the wider environmental justice movement to help complete the picture of who we are as a community-based organization and why we have engaged in this project. In return, our research partners have, at various points, oriented us to the realities of the tenure process and to their other research interests and facilities.

Shared Learning and Capacity Building
The community-based participatory research relationships we have developed with researchers at Columbia University include a commitment to building the capacity, knowledge and skills of both entities. On the community side, WE ACT’s Environmental Health & Justice Leadership Training is a program that has trained more than 100 community leaders in the basics of environmental health and science. The training, based on the graduate-level Environmental Health core course at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, has been developed and is delivered in collaboration with our research allies. By way of reciprocation, WE ACT staff frequently guest lecture in various courses at the School of Public Health, providing a “real-life” context of environmental racism and the local community for students. We also offer our perspectives on the ways in which students, as future public health practitioners, can be effective allies for social justice.

Finally, WE ACT has significantly built its capacity to effectively organize and advocate for environmental health and justice by internalizing scientific and technical capacity on staff. My own background in environmental health and science (combined with the engineering expertise of a field technician recently hired through one of our collaborative research grants with Columbia) has helped us break our dependence on our good friends at Columbia for understanding and proactively addressing often-complex health and science questions.

Long-term Needs of the EJ Movement

The Environmental Justice Movement has several opportunities to bolster our power and effectiveness by strategically accessing the resources of scientific and academic institutions. One of the long-term needs is to break down the dichotomy between community “insiders” and academic “outsiders” by helping bring more people of color, particularly individuals from communities most affected by environmental racism, into relevant academic fields and institutions. This means supporting youth from our communities to enter the academic world. Internalizing scientific capacity also means challenging the limiting concept that organizers and other staff of CBOs cannot or should not “do” science themselves but should depend on their scientist allies.

The next long-term need is to effectively combine academic and technical resources with community organizing, the central approach for many CBOs to achieving environmental justice in local communities. This means working to maximize the benefits of partnerships while retaining an organizing focus, avoiding the pitfalls of financial temptation, knowing when to say “no” to new research proposals, and remembering that science and academics are a means to an organizing or advocacy end rather than the end in itself.

The time and measures that it takes to establish and maintain healthy, non-exploitative research relationships between academic and community partners are rarely built into project plans or grant applications. Yet not taking these measures into account amounts to setting up a relationship for failure. Moving forward, funders of CBPR must also play a role in affirming that the “hidden costs” of building meaningful relationships are as important as the costs of “analyzing samples” or communicating results to the public.

Accessing the potential of academic collaborations to strengthen our campaigns for justice remains within the reach of many environmental and social justice organizations. As we work to realize this potential, it becomes increasingly important for community-based organizations to communicate, share lessons, and support one another to ensure that these alliances unfold in a manner that truly empowers communities struggling for environmental justice, and for safe and healthy communities.

Swati Prakash is the environmental health director for WE ACT for Environmental Justice. 

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Deceptive Science

The problem with risk assessment

By Peter Montague 

When local authorities want to expand a highway, for example, through a low-income neighborhood, to forestall local opposition they conduct research known as a "risk assessment." First, they list a few of the pollutants found in the air near highways. Then they list a few of the ways those pollutants harm humans. Next they estimate how much the "most exposed" person will breathe. And finally, they estimate how much harm the pollution will do to that most exposed individual. Despite this work, they often decide to allow the development because, although their risk assessment finds that harm is likely, the harm is deemed "acceptable."

These days, risk assessment methodology is used like a bulldozer to clear a path for just about any development or other project that corporations and governments want to do. Risk assessors run interference for agencies that want to spray pesticides to kill mosquitoes, build incinerators to burn garbage, spread contaminated sewage sludge to fertilize city parks, put up a school on contaminated land, and on and on. Often, authorities do a risk assessment to convince residents that any potential harm of development or industrial activity is minimal.


Roots of Risk Assessment

Well-meaning government officials started using risk assessment in the 1970s, hoping to make their decisions more scientifically based and consistent. Unfortunately, in most cases, the scientific information that’s actually needed to make sound judgments isn't available, so risk assessors fall back on assumptions, guesswork and "fudge factors" (also known as "safety factors"). As a result, two risk assessors working with the same information can reach wildly different conclusions. Though risk assessments are not technically scientific—they cannot be reproduced from one laboratory to another—they are often presented as scientific conclusions.

By the 1980s, corporations saw that risk assessments could be finagled to justify almost any decision. Risk assessment uses some scientific data (plus estimates and guesses dressed up as science) and the conclusion is always expressed in numbers. Because risk assessment produces a numerical answer, it leaves out ethics and values, such as justice and fairness. As a result, with risk-based decisions, the general public often doesn’t understand the process, can't participate in the decisions, and can't raise key questions like, “Who gets to decide?” Furthermore, because risk assessment doesn’t take justice into account, it can rarely serve to challenge environmental injustice and, in fact, often supports institutional racism.

In sum, risk assessment is an expert's game that excludes the public, appears to be scientific even when it’s based on little more than guesswork, and can be manipulated to allow decision-makers to justify almost any conclusion that suits their political agenda or wallet.


Deceptive Science_1
Young boy sits on basketball court next to an oil refinery in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley." ©Mark Ludak/The Image Works


Four Fundamental Flaws

But risk assessments have not gone unchallenged. In the past decade, new scientific information about chemicals and health has punched more than a dozen new holes in this technique. I'll mention four:

1. We now know that, because of genetic inheritance, individuals differ greatly in their reaction to toxins. For example, some people cough and wheeze when they walk down the detergent aisle at the grocery store; others don't. Risk assessors try to account for the differences between individuals by applying a "safety factor" of 10 to their numerical estimate of risk. But this factor has little scientific justification. Even calling it a safety factor is misleading because no scientist can know how much of a poison is safe for a particular individual—especially if that individual is a child, or is elderly, or suffers from some chronic disorder (e.g. asthma) and is exposed to a multitude of other chemicals (e.g. smog) in daily life.

2. Risk assessments of chemicals are conducted on single chemicals. But we’re all exposed to mixtures of chemicals, including diesel fumes, second-hand smoke, water pollutants and smog, every day. Pinpointing the effects of exposure to low levels of a single chemical is almost impossible. Furthermore, many recent studies have shown that harmless amounts of several individual chemicals, in combination, can add up to a harmful dose. So to learn the real health effects of chemicals, scientists would need to study all chemicals in combination with other chemicals. Unfortunately, this is so complicated and expensive that scientists almost never do it.

What is true about individual chemicals is also true about multiple sources of pollution. For instance, in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey, individual risk assessments were conducted on a cement-crushing plant, a garbage incinerator and a sewage treatment plant. Over the years, officials deemed the risks from each facility (rather than all facilities combined) "acceptable." Now this low-income, predominantly black and Hispanic community is burdened with an intolerable combination of stench, filth and danger. Because risk assessors can't evaluate multiple chemicals or multiple hazards with precision or reliability, in many situations their claim that risks are "acceptable" is a kind of scientific fraud.

3. We now know that some chemicals are only harmful during a brief period of time (or "window of vulnerability") in the development of an organism, such as the nine months a fetus grows in the womb. Some chemicals may only be harmful during a particular few days or weeks—i.e., when the brain or heart or eyes are developing. As a result, to learn about toxicity, tests must be conducted (on mice or rats) during those exact times. Chemicals tested during other times may appear to be harmless when they are actually dangerous.

4. Risk assessments ignore thousands of important biochemical reactions. For instance, current federal protocols for examining the tissues of laboratory animals were developed before the modern era of biochemistry and molecular biology. After animals are exposed to chemicals and then killed for tissue analysis, their organs are examined visually for gross damage, but microscopic examination of the organs is not usually required. The really sophisticated analyses made possible by modern biochemistry and molecular biology are almost never done, because they are expensive. From the viewpoint of modern biology, animal testing is decades out of date, and will likely remain so for economic reasons.

Furthermore, a chemical is often studied for its ability to cause cancer. But cancer is not the only risk. Chemicals can harm our ability to think and pay attention (nervous system); our fertility and success in reproducing; our ability to resist disease (immune system); and our hormones (chemicals in our blood that control growth, development, learning and behavior). In most risk assessments, these aspects of our health are simply omitted because they are too complicated to study. When 90 percent of the problem is ignored, how can the conclusions be scientifically valid?

These shortcomings of risk assessment cannot be fixed because there simply aren't enough laboratories and enough money to take into account all the potential sources of harm. So risk assessments will continue to be gross oversimplifications having little relevance to the real world.


Deceptive Science_2
Students from Horizon High School in Hamtramck, Michigan study the water quality of Rouge River. © Jim West/ The Image Works










 A Better Way

There are alternatives. If risk assessments continue to be used, they could be supplemented by a precautionary approach. For instance, a community can determine goals for itself and examine different ways of achieving those goals. Then the risks and benefits of each option might be considered and discussed. Risk assessment might play a role in examining each option, as long as the shortcomings of risk assessment are stated right up front, so no one is fooled. Then the least harmful—and most beneficial—way to achieve the community's goals can be chosen. This process, called “comparative risk assessment,” might provide useful information, though all risk assessments should be taken with a grain of salt.

Another process for assessing environmental impacts is known as the modified Delphi technique. Developed in the 1960s, Delphi has been used by government agencies and private businesses for making decisions about complicated, emotionally charged issues such as funding priorities for cancer research. It requires that the community and the authorities jointly select experts in various fields of knowledge, including particular knowledge of the community as well as scientific and medical expertise. Then these experts hold a series of open meetings with the community. This way, the community's questions get answered; issues like power, money, racism, justice and democracy can be raised; and the community can decide whether they trust what they've heard. The result could be a better decision based not just on science but also on the community's needs, goals and values.

Risk assessment boils everything down to numbers. As a result, risk assessment never asks questions like: Is this the best we can do? Is this fair and just? Is this good for the community? By suppressing such questions, risk assessment has become a powerful force against democracy. But this is changing. Communities are insisting on new approaches that allow many different kinds of knowledge to be considered, including the local knowledge that is so crucial for sound, just decisions.

Peter Montague edits Rachel’s Environment & Health News, which aims to provide grassroots community activists with solid information about the environment and health. Rachel’s is available free (in English and Spanish) via email; you can subscribe (and see all back issues) at http://www.rachel.org, or send a subscription request to erf@rachel.org.

Roots of Community Research

Primer on the legacy of participatory research partnerships

By Madeleine Kangsen Scammell

Community-based participatory research, or CBPR, is the product of several terms, including community-based research (i.e., research physically located in a community), action research, and participatory action research (PAR).[1] Each has its distinct roots, which have grown and intertwined. Today, the term CBPR is most often used in the field of public health in the context of collaborative, multi- and interdisciplinary endeavors, and partnerships (e.g., between grassroots community groups and academic institutions).

Most people describe CBPR by its characteristics or principles.[2,3] In a review of the roots of CBPR, Wallerstein and Minkler refer to two distinct historical traditions, Northern and Southern, to which the more recent concept of CBPR can be traced.[4] These approaches to research are elsewhere referred to as the Traditional and Radical forms of action research.[5]

Kurt Lewin, the social psychologist credited with coining the term “action research” in the 1940s, best represents the Northern, or Traditional, roots. Lewin was an early proponent of the use of scientific data by community leaders, hopeful that improved research facilities at universities would facilitate action research in social change endeavors. He also emphasized the importance of “intergroup relations”—i.e., the relations between researchers, those who are the subjects of their studies, and groups defined by area of expertise.

The Southern, or Radical, form of action research emanates primarily from the Southern hemisphere, or so-called Third World. The distinguishing characteristic of this tradition is an explicit challenge to the inequitable distribution of political and socioeconomic power. The Southern tradition defies unequal access to, and participation in, the production of knowledge in institutions of higher learning. Most representative of this tradition is the work of educator Paulo Freire from Brazil, Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals- Borda, and Rajesh Tandon, an engineer from India who now runs the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, out of New Delhi. Their teachings and philosophies share the conviction that social scientists have an important role in the movement for liberation of the poor from exploitation and hierarchical social structures.

If we were to distill the characteristics common to PAR and CBPR, they would include the participation of those affected by the results of research at every step of the process (i.e., defining the problem, designing the study, analyzing results), the equitable distribution of power among participants, and a solution-oriented outcome.

Roots of Community Research
Growth of Community-based Participant Research

One reason these distinct traditions may have come together in the form of CBPR in the United States is the emergence of the environmental justice movement, and the recognition of institutional racism and oppressive social and political structures. Several events have contributed to this recognition, such as the documentation of such inequalities by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO's 1983 report, Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities, was conducted at the request of a North Carolina Congressman after hundreds of his constituents in Warren County were arrested for protesting a new PCB landfill in that rural African-American community. Results of the study confirmed what residents already knew: African Americans were disproportionately burdened by hazardous waste. Three of four federally designated hazardous landfills receiving waste from the eight southern states that comprise Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region IV were located in areas where the majority of the population lived below the poverty level, and was Black (in contrast to the general population throughout the eight states).

Following the GAO report, in 1986, the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to- Know Act (part of the Superfund Reauthorization Act) made it possible for community groups and interested individuals to conduct research documenting environmental injustices. Though the Act is reliant on self-reporting by industry and does not include all toxic chemicals or exposures, it facilitates the process by which residents can access information to track their own proximity to toxic waste and conduct their own community-based participatory research via these publicly accessible databases.[6]

In 1987, a year after reauthorization of the Superfund Act, the United Church of Christ’s (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice published Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, widely viewed as conclusively documenting how communities of color had become the "dumping grounds" for our nation's waste and pollution. One of the communities highlighted as an example of such injustice was East St. Louis, Illinois. That same year, with the help of State Representative Wyvetter H. Younge, a group of ministers from East St. Louis approached the University of Illinois School of Architecture’s East St. Louis Revitalization Project. They proposed a communityuniversity partnership that would conduct community- based research. While negotiating this partnership, the residents presented five conditions in writing to the university. Among them was the requirement that residents, not faculty or funders, have both control over the research agenda and involvement in every step of the research process. That was the beginning of the East St. Louis Action Research Project, which has since served as an example of how CBPR contributes to achieving the goal of environmental justice.[7]

As the grassroots environmental justice movement increased momentum, environmental health professionals responded. In 1993, the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), one of the 28 institutes that comprise the National Institutes of Health, launched a small grant program, Environmental Justice/Partnerships for Communications, with the goal of strengthening relationships among researchers, communities and health care providers. Soon after, they launched a similarly structured program, titled Community-Based Prevention/Intervention Research. In 1994 President Clinton mandated that all federal agencies achieve environmental justice by identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health and environmental effects on minority and low-income populations.[8]

Over the next two years, “partnership,” “collaboration” and “participation” became the preferred tools to fulfill President Clinton’s mandate. The U.S. EPA, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, and the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all launched programs to address environmental justice, often via community-university research partnerships. A windfall of funding for partnerships and participation also came from private foundations, although they did not share the mandate of addressing environmental justice. Local, regional and international networks were launched that represented aspects of the Southern and Northern approaches to action research. Examples include the Community-University Consortium for Regional Environmental Justice (CUCREJ), the Loka Institute’s Community Research Network (CRN), and Community-Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH).

In 1999 the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine (IOM) published Toward Environmental Justice: Research, Education, and Health Policy Needs.[9] In this report, several pages were devoted to the topic of “participatory research” which was espoused as a method for addressing health disparities and environmental injustice. This was an important validation of community participation in an arena where epidemiological studies, and exposure and risk assessments—which traditionally allowed little opportunity for meaningful community input— had been the basis of policy decisions that contributed to environmental injustices. By suggesting participatory research, the IOM report called to question the dominant perception that the inclusion of those most affected by study findings threatened scientific objectivity. The year following the IOM report, NIEHS convened a meeting on the topic of best practices in “community-based participatory research,” officially adopting the language of participatory research to describe their environmental justice and community-based programs.

Protecting Participatory Research

As the number of governmental agencies embracing the language of participatory research continued to increase internationally, early proponents grew concerned that the concept was at risk of being coopted. For several decades Orlando Fals-Borda and others of the Southern tradition met at the World Congresses on Participatory Action Research. Writing after the 9th World Congress held in 2000, Fals- Borda described a “certain satisfaction” with “the progress of PAR from its early intellectual and political endeavors to its present institutionalization,” witnessed in part by the “heaps of books and magazines on the topic.” He also recognized the presence of representatives from the World Bank, and observed the, “overwhelming presence of Euro-American authors…. a striking change from the seventies, when there was a wide diffusion of the first monographs by participatory researchers and activists from Third World countries.”[10]

Fast forward to 2004. While co-optation may not be the reason behind persistent inequalities in exposures to environmental hazards, the ability to achieve the social change articulated by the civil rights and environmental justice movements has grown weaker, not stronger, in many parts of the United States and internationally. Laws have been written, but poorly enforced. And while the vocabulary of empowerment and justice is used globally, we have yet to realize equally empowered societies.

Let us remember the roots of CBPR—efforts to realize alternative forms of research and social change—so that in five, ten or 50 years from now, CBPR will not be little more than expert-driven research dressed in the day’s fashion, or even worse, a form of control and exploitation. Let’s ensure that the relationships between researchers and communities have not morphed to match the structures that have given rise to institutional racism and inequality—or that concerns for rigorous standards and legitimate methods override a vision of problem solving and social change. Instead, let’s envision a research infrastructure, including scientists, universities, and governments, with the capacity to be responsive to community concerns, engaging in genuine and empowering partnerships.

Madeleine Kangsen Scammell is a doctoral candidate at Boston University School of Public Health, Department of Environmental Health.

  1. For background on terms used in this article, see Minker, M. and N. Wallerstein, eds. (2002) Community-based Participatory Research for Health. Jossey-Bass
  2. Israel, B. et al. (1998) Review of Community-Based Research: Assessing Partnership Approaches to Improve Public Health. Annual Review of Public Health. 19:173-202.
  3. O’Fallon, L. et. al. (2000) Improving public health through community-based participatory research and outreach. Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology. 2:201-209.
  4. Minkler, Meredith and Nina Wallerstein, eds. (2002) Community-Based Participatory Research for Health. Jossey-Bass.
  5. O'Brien, R. (2001). Um exame da abordagem metodol?É?í?Ǭ?gica da pesquisa ação [An Overview of the Methodological Approach of Action Research]. In Roberto Richardson (Ed.), Teoria e Pr?É?í?Ǭ°tica da Pesquisa Ação [Theory and Practice of Action Research]. João Pessoa, Brazil: Universidade Federal da Para?É?í?Ǭ?ba (English version) Available: http://www.web.net/~robrien/papers/ar%20final2.html
  6. An example of how such data has been used, Unequal Exposure to Ecological Hazards: Environmental Injustices in The Commonwealth Of Massachusetts by Daniel R. Faber and Eric J. Krieg (2001) A report by the Philanthropy and Environmental Justice Research Project, Northeastern University.
  7. http://www.eslarp.uiuc.edu/
  8. Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.
  9. Available for purchase and in pdf format on the Internet: http://www.nap.edu/catalog/6034.html
  10. Fals-Borda, Orlando. (2001) From Cartagena to Ballarat: A Report on the Joint Fifth World Congress on Action Learning, Action Research, and Process Management and Ninth World Congress on Participatory Action Research. Guest Editorial. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 14(2):125-134

Good Science

Principles of community-based participatory research

Across the country, Environmental Justice communities are faced with an urgency to address life-threatening pollution and health assaults. The survival of these communities has long been jeopardized by a legacy of unequal protection and scarce resources and capacity. Adding insult to injury, community-initiated efforts to improve their health and environment have often been hindered by scientific experts and expert agencies.

One of the strategies employed by communities under toxic assault is to “bring in the experts”—that is, to convince federal agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or local experts to use the technical methods of science to address the community’s concerns. Unfortunately, such efforts at “collaboration” have often resulted in the community being left out of decision-making, delays in addressing the problem, and findings that do more to roil the situation than to improve the environment in which people live.

A good example of this phenomenon is the implementation of Community Advisory Groups (CAGS) by regional offices of the EPA. Too often, CAGS have been comprised of professionals and others who were removed from the immediate impacts of environmental pollution, which had the effect of excluding from decision-making those who were primarily affected by toxics. In other instances, sham organizations have been formed by both public and private entities to direct activities done in the name of impacted communities in order to apply for grant monies. Another strategy have been the formation of alliances, in some instances with community people, in order to neutralize their involvement.

Given that the national research institutions have been far too meek in making the linkage between environmental exposures and poor health, the potential power of science to assist communities has been limited. For instance, communities across the country have accused the Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR) of being inconclusive by design. Assessments by this and other scientific agencies frequently conclude that exposure to a level of chemical and/or toxic metal found in a given community is not likely to result in bad health effects. However, even when such chemicals are present in a community and residents’ illnesses mirror potential health effects of those chemicals, the tendency of the EPA, ATSDR, state regulatory agencies, and health departments is to downplay potential associations between exposures and adverse health outcomes, and to resist taking precautionary action to address the concerns of community residents.

Risk assessment methods used by the regulatory agencies are often to blame. However, there are other contributing factors. I believe that the current “top down” research model has narrowed the scope of scientific research and robbed it of crucial knowledge. In this approach, only the knowledge of the formally trained expert is considered valid and reality is described by empirical and testable results. Those that are affected by a given problem are by definition “biased” and therefore their views are considered suspect or are outright discounted. In this paradigm of scientific inquiry, the voices of those experiencing the problem are excluded and consequently, science (scientists) misses data (experiences) that describe a deeper and more expansive understanding of the problem.

A New Paradigm: CBPR

An effective model of research that can compensate for the shortcomings of traditional top-down, outsider-dominated environmental and health research is community-based participatory research, or CBPR. CBPR provides the Environmental Justice community with an opportunity to build a new research paradigm. Simply put, CBPR is a method that brings the knowledge and expertise of communities together with that of formally trained researchers to find answers or to intervene to address a problem or concern. CBPR combines research with action. Under the CBPR framework, the collaboration of communities and experts must be equitable, transparent, and ethically sound, and stem from community-articulated problems. The critical component in any CBPR project is the creation of a fully participatory partnership between community members and technically trained providers and investigators that produces “good science,” and promotes community-defined problem solving.

11-2 Good Science

I first learned about CBPR from the Southeast Community Research Center (SCRC), a south-wide center based in Atlanta where I now work as the programs and partnership coordinator. As I learned more about CBPR, I immediately thought about the countless communities with which I have worked over the past 15 years. They were frustrated with health assessments and health studies conducted in their communities, and disappointed with the failure of experts to link pollutants and prevalent sicknesses and deaths in their communities. I recognized that CBPR could be a systematic way to find the answers to questions and the solutions to problems relating to health, the environment, and to social and economic marginalization.

Through the SCRC, I’m now working on building partnerships in rural communities in Alabama to eliminate health disparities; with communities in Georgia to address environmental health; and in Mississippi where a broad coalition of community leaders, health and environmental researchers have devised and begun to implement a community-wide strategy for health equity and justice. The SCRC is also building partnerships with Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and communities throughout the South to address health disparities. There are now eight researcher/community partnerships, based on CBPR principles, under development to address the horrible health outcomes experienced by African Americans in Georgia, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi. (For information, visit the SCRC website at www.CBPR.org.)

In this work, SCRC finds that when the strengths and resources of both technical experts and community experts are brought to bear, new and productive avenues open up for understanding problems and the development and implementation of solutions. Unlike conventional research methods, which discount the knowledge of the non-expert, we find that our efforts produce a fuller statement of the problem, generate new and innovative solutions, and result in fuller participation by all involved.

Community Dialogue Sessions
The SCRC CBPR process begins with community Dialogue Sessions because marginalized communities too often do not have the resources to come together in facilitated and documented dialogue about community health and other problems. The Dialogue Sessions provide the space for community members and groups to come together to define and document the issues that they want to address. In subsequent Dialogue Sessions, community members learn how to use their expertise in a CBPR format—what might be termed “CBPR 101.” Popular Education methods are utilized to promote organic involvement of the community as the first step to community problem identification and solving, and to ensure that power is located and enhanced in the community.

The Community Dialogue Ssessions is the foundation that ensures communities come to the table prepared to systematically state and stand for their views and experiences as the project takes shape. While this process does not eliminate the resource and power divide, it puts it squarely on the table for discussion and problem solving.

Partnership Building
The overwhelming majority of environmental justice community groups are grossly under-resourced. The resource dearth materially diminishes a community’s readiness to utilize effective strategies. When marginalized communities do not have the capacity to participate fully in community/research partnerships, they are vulnerable to distortion of their view of the problem and a real solution. Through the development of structured partnerships, which recognize and address systemic power imbalances and require an agreed-upon structure that deals with both the technical and political elements of partnerships, community power is protected.

The Dialogue Sessions are followed by joint community/ researcher workshops. In these workshops, analysis of the advantages of partnerships and the barriers to achieving effective partnerships are explored, culminating in the development of principles that serve as a framework for an equitable partnership as defined by the community. In addition, reports from the Community DS are reviewed and concerns are prioritized. The workshops are followed by the establishment of community and multi-disciplinary research teams to pursue CBPR projects that develop research questions and interventions, and plan for fundraising.

Tool for Change
CBPR is not the panacea for poor and marginalized communities: political power and social and economic justice are the goals we must reach if we want a society in which the children of every neighborhood can play and live in a healthy environment. However, CBPR is one more tool, and a potentially effective one, for communities to employ to fight for the health and well-being of their neighborhoods. The skepticism about research in the Environmental Justice community must be addressed. We have been “studied to death,” yet many communities never reach an understanding of the full impact of pollution on the public health and quality of life.

Science and technology are powerful tools, but our current inability to employ them fully and holistically limits their use and effectiveness. CBPR provides an invaluable opportunity to deliver truly “good science,”—science that helps us determine ways to understand and improve our health and quality of life.

Connie Tucker, an activist for more than 30 years, became a leader in the EJ Movement in its early stages and served for 11 years as director of the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice, one of the five major grassroots EJ networks. She presently serves as the programs and partnership coordinator for Southeast Community Research Center (SCRC) in Atlanta.

Douglas Taylor, Ph.D., is the founder and director of SCRC. His research focuses on ethics in science and methods to democratize decision-making on scientific and technical questions, particularly on health and environment topics.

Case Studies in Community-based Science

11-2 Case Studies section divider
These models show how communities worked in partnership with researchers and allies to document environmental exposures, and support campaigns. These models show how communities worked in partnership with researchers and allies to document environmental exposures, and support campaigns.

Ditching Diesel

Community-driven research reduces pollution in West Oakland

Diesel exhaust—the black smoke emitted by buses, trucks, trains and ships—is the number one toxic air pollutant in California. Chemicals in diesel pollution can cause cancer, harm the reproductive system, and aggravate or cause asthma. New research shows that West Oakland, California, a neighborhood surrounded by freeways and bordered by the Port of Oakland, suffers from far more than its fair share of this toxic pollution. But residents, community organizations and the city have uncovered a host of practical solutions that can help clean up West Oakland’s pollution and improve the health of residents as well as the local economy.

West Oakland is a small neighborhood of 24,000 residents on the shores of the San Francisco Bay. More than 60 percent of the residents are African American and 89 percent are people of color, according to the 2000 Census. West Oakland is the poorest neighborhood in the Bay Area, where 55 percent of the households earn less than $25,000 per year. In addition to its rich African-American history, West Oakland has growing Latino (16 percent) and Asian (9 percent) populations.

Three freeways, the Port of Oakland, and the Oakland Army Base border the neighborhood. According to the City of Oakland, more than 20 truck-related businesses operate in the neighborhood. Every day, thousands of diesel trucks travel through West Oakland to drop off and pick up containers from docked ships at the Port, which is the fourth busiest in the nation. The Port estimates that its planned expansion will almost double the amount of truck traffic in the area—generating 22,000 truck trips per day by 2010. All told, there’s a lot of truck traffic in this small community, which contributes to the diesel pollution and dirty air.

Not surprisingly, diesel pollution was one of the top environmental concerns identified by residents and community organizations through the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WO EIP). The WO EIP began as a partnership between the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based non-profit research organization, and the 7th St./McClymonds Corridor Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, a community-based organization. Pacific Institute chose West Oakland as the pilot site for a Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project because of the environmental issues faced by the community, the history of community activism, and the opportunity to support community revitalization efforts facilitated by the 7th St. Neighborhood Improvement Initiative. The WO EIP is now a fully community-run initiative based at the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization (CWOR).

The Project
From its inception, the project was designed to support a community-driven process. The WO EIP established a committee of neighborhood residents who served as the community “conscience” of the project. Through a series of meetings in 2000, the WO EIP sought to define the term “environment” in the context of West Oakland; identify environmental issues in the community; select indicators that community members wanted to measure and track; and determine how such information would be incorporated into current advocacy, policy, education and organizing work.

By July 2000, the WO EIP Committee had agreed on a core set of indicators. Indicators convey information about the quality of life in a community: its economic vitality, the strength of social institutions, the well-being of residents, and the state of the environment. But indicators are more than just a measurement tool: they reflect the values of those who select them. The indicators concerning residents most included truck traffic, indoor and outdoor air quality, and asthma. (See WO EIP Indicators final report at www.neip.org.)

11-2 Ditching Diesel_1
With help from foundation and agency funders, West Oakland residents and organizations designed and conducted their own neighborhood study of diesel trucks in partnership with the Pacific Institute. Over the course of five WO EIP meetings, committee members identified questions that needed to be answered in a Diesel Truck Study: where and when trucks were traveling and needed to be monitored; a list of potential technical assistance contractors; and previous diesel studies. They also discussed how the information could be disseminated to community audiences and used to generate change.

After a series of more meetings, the coalition decided to conduct three studies: a truck count on residential streets in West Oakland and a truck idling study; an inventory of diesel emissions in the community; and an indoor air monitoring study. Ten West Oakland residents were hired and trained to conduct truck counts on selected neighborhood streets. Other residents volunteered to measure levels of pollution in their homes with a specialized instrument designed to measure diesel soot. This was then compared to levels of diesel soot in homes in another part of Oakland. The results we found through these studies and existing sources, were shocking (all study methodologies and results are available at www.pacinst.org/reports/diesel). They include:

  • 11-2 Ditching Diesel_2 Average diesel emissions per square mile in West Oakland are more than 90 times greater than average emissions for the rest of California. There’s also seven times more diesel exhaust per person in West Oakland than in Alameda County as a whole. The toxic diesel soot emitted in West Oakland affects Californians from West Oakland to Fresno, but people in West Oakland bear the brunt of the exposure.
  • Western Oakland residents breathe air with diesel particulate levels that are five times greater than what residents breathe in other parts of Oakland. Due to diesel particulate exposure, West Oakland residents may have an increased lifetime risk of one extra cancer case for every thousand residents. This is more than five times the cancer risk that residents in other parts of Oakland face from diesel pollution.
  • Hundreds of trucks travel on residential streets in West Oakland every day, some illegally. Some trucks were spotted on streets that prohibited trucks weighing more than four and a half tons. We also learned that trucks idle outside port terminal gates an estimated combined 280 hours per day. Through a survey of truckers, we conservatively estimated that each truck spends about 1.5 hours per trip idling or crawling to deliver or pick-up a container.
  • Exposure to diesel causes cancer, and may increase the risk of asthma, heart disease and premature death. Asthma is epidemic in West Oakland: children here are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average child in the state of California. Recent studies have shown that diesel exhaust does not only make asthma worse, but it may actually cause asthma.

From Study to Solutions
While our studies confirmed what many residents already knew—that West Oakland faces a disproportionate burden of environmental and health threats from diesel pollution—we also found that there were many opportunities to reduce diesel pollution and truck impacts in West Oakland. Solutions include: stepped up enforcement of illegal truck traffic; moving truck-related businesses away from residential areas and on to land owned by the Port and Army Base; the installation of electrical hook-ups so trucks waiting to enter the Port don't idle; financial incentives to get the dirtiest trucks off the road; and the creation of new truck routes with signs and other outreach to ensure that drivers know the right route. The final report of our work, “Clearing the Air: Reducing Diesel Pollution in West Oakland,” has a detailed list of these solutions (www.pacinst.org/reports/diesel).

11-2 Ditching Diesel_3
Since the release of the report, we’ve made progress in putting these solutions in place. We've held a series of meetings with City of Oakland traffic engineers to designate a truck route away from neighborhood streets. And, we’ve been working with the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland to move truck-related businesses out of West Oakland and on to the Army Base site. Through ongoing meetings with the director of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, we obtained commitments to put Air District resources and staff behind the effort to reduce diesel pollution in highly polluted communities such as West Oakland.

We were also able to help advocate for the allocation of $1.5 million in Air District funds to the Port of Oakland, with community oversight and input into how the money would be spent. And the WO EIP Committee recently signed a partnering agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to develop a collaborative process involving all stakeholders in implementing the diesel reduction solutions identified in the report.

We are excited and gratified that the collaborative, science-based approach we have pursued is starting to make a difference for the people of West Oakland. Our study has demonstrated the power of residents and community groups—armed with the information they need—to fight for environmental justice and clean air. It has also shown the importance of supportive partnerships between research organizations and community residents. But despite the progress, much more needs to be done: relief cannot come too quickly for those who are breathing dirty air, suffering from asthma, or living in polluted communities.

Meena Palaniappan directs the Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice Program at the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Oakland.

  1. According to the California Air Resources Board 2002 Almanac, the Health Risk estimate from diesel particulate matter (DPM) for California and for the San Francisco Bay Area Air Basin is almost 10 times higher than that for the other 9 toxic air contaminants (TACs) studied. Source: ARB. 2002. 2002 California Almanac of Emissions and Air Quality. Chapter 5: Toxic Air Contaminants, Air Quality and Health Risk. p.265.
  2. For more information on all sorts of health risks from diesel exhaust, see US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2002. Health Assessment for Diesel Exhaust. Office of Research Development. EPA/600/8-90/057F May 2002.
  3. Harding ESE. 2001. West Oakland Particulate Emissions Study, Oakland, California. Harding ESE Project No. 48168 005, Prepared for the City of Oakland Environmental Services Division. September 24, 2001. Novato, CA.
  4. Port of Oakland Department of Environmental Assessment and U.S. Department of the Navy. 1997. Disposal and Reuse of Fleet and Industrial Supply Center Oakland, Vision 2000 Maritime Development. Final Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report. ACH # 96062010. San Bruno and Oakland, CA. p. J-4.3. This EIS / EIR estimates that of 22,210 truck trips in 2010 under the Reduced Harbor Fill Alternative, 14,219 will be over-the-road weekday truck trips and 7,992 will be to and from rail (intramodal).
  5. Pacific Institute and 7th Street McClymonds Corridor. 2002. Neighborhood Knowledge for Change: The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. Oakland, CA: Pacific Institute.
  6. Pandya et al. 2002. Diesel Exhaust and Asthma: Hypotheses and Molecular Mechanisms of Action. Environ Health Perspectives 110 (S1): 103–112. Also, extensive cohort studies with children in more and less polluted areas of Southern California showed that children living in areas with higher measured levels of NOx and particulate matter exhibited the highest incidences of new asthma cases (Kunzli et al. 2003. Breathless in Los Angeles: The Exhausting Search for Clean Air. American Journal of Public Health 93:1494–1499). Cupertino, CA.

Hogging the Land

Research and organizing put a halt to swine industry growth

In late 1991, Charles Tillery, Jr. of Tillery, North Carolina approached the community group, Concerned Citizens of Tillery’s (CCT), with news about a plan by the Halifax County Economic Development Corporation to bring industrial hog farming to Tillery. For Mr. Tillery, the only remaining descendent of the family that gave Tillery its name, the proposed development was cause for alarm. As he and CCT’s executive director Gary R. Grant began looking into the development, it became clear that it was not the type of hog farming to which farmers in the area were accustomed. Unlike the pasture or free-range farming that was typical in Tillery, industrial farming would concentrate thousands of animals in confined spaces and produce greater waste.

11-2 Hogging the Land
Charles Tillery was also disturbed that the first industrial hog operation in the area was to be located only a half mile from his antebellum plantation home, which was registered on the North Carolina and Federal Registries of Historic Sites. To Gary Grant, a community leader who had brought together the two local African-American communities to oppose school closings, advocate for access to medical care, and end racist agricultural policies, the proposed development was yet another affront to low-income people of color. Because the threat of this new form of industrial agriculture was being marketed to local farmers as economic development—with no mention of environmental damage—the two men agreed that an interracial coalition would be needed to initiate a massive organizing and education campaign. CCT took the lead in that process.

After several informal meetings, residents began the organizing process and scheduled a larger community meeting. Once the community learned about the scope of the development, there was no question that it was not the kind of “economic development” they wanted. To challenge the hog industry, the community first conducted house-to-house interviews to establish data on the structure, age and depth of private family wells serving the community. They feared that the hog factories’ proposed “lagoon” waste disposal system would pollute the groundwater and the aquifers that supplied those wells. There were also pollution threats to the Conoconnara Creek, which zigzags through the community, and the Roanoke River, which borders much of the land owned by Blacks in the community.

Research and Environmental Racism
An anti-industrial hog farm coalition developed quickly. Working with the Halifax County health director, county commissioners and local farmers, the coalition celebrated its first success with the passage of county’s Intensive Livestock Ordinance in 1992, which required that the lagoons be set back specific distances from property lines, streams and individual wells. However, the hog industry was still expanding rapidly, and CCT recognized the potential of bringing together community organizations with traditional environmental groups that were concerned primarily with the pollution of surface water and the damage to rivers, coastal waters and wildlife. These groups, including the Sierra Club, Wildlife Federation, Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Defense, had the resources, expertise and political access not available to community groups—especially African-American organizations. CCT hoped these large organizations would help poor rural communities oppose the hog industry’s destructive impacts on the environment, health, independent farming, Black land ownership, local autonomy, and indeed, democracy itself in eastern North Carolina.

CCT convened the Hog Roundtable—the name given to the coalition of groups—in early 1993. Its purpose was to provide education on hog farms to unsuspecting communities, coordinate legislative rally days, and organize for a statewide effort to stop the rapid and massive growth of the hog industry. As members of the Hog Roundtable and other citizens attempted to convince local and state officials that the hog industry was harming the people and environment of eastern North Carolina, officials asked, “Where is the documentation?” Most scientific studies of impacts of industrial swine production had been conducted in Iowa and in parts of Europe, areas where industrial production methods had a longer history. CCT needed to begin data gathering for North Carolina in order to impact policy. To that end, Mary Lee Kerr, representing the Institute of Southern Studies at the Hog Roundtable, introduced Grant and CCT to Steve Wing, an epidemiologist in the School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill.

CCT worked with Wing to initiate research into the location and health impacts of industrial hog production. This research was driven by concerns of rural people living closest to the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where thousands of hogs are crowded into metal buildings and the waste is flushed through slats and into cesspools before being sprayed on fields. The waste is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and pathogens, and contains residues of antibiotics and hormones used in the feed to promote growth. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics used in hog feed, some of which are also used in human medicine, have been identified in waste pits as well as in nearby ground and surface water. Additionally, neighbors of hog CAFOs were devastated by horrible odors that permeated even their clothes and furniture.

CCT and other community-based African-American organizations in eastern North Carolina observed that many hog CAFOs were located near Black schools, churches and neighborhoods. With the history of Warren County—the majority African-American community that gave birth to the environmental justice movement when it opposed a massive PCB landfill in the late 1970s—in mind, community groups charged the hog industry with environmental racism. However, their charges were ignored or rejected by white politicians, journalists and environmentalists on the grounds that community groups’ observations were anecdotal.

Consequently, CCT partnered with researchers from UNC to conduct more formal research. This community-academic partnership decided to link permit records and federal census data to document the racial and economic characteristics of neighborhoods with and without hog CAFOs. Findings were clear: hog CAFOs were almost 10 times more common in low-income and Black areas compared to higher income areas with few Blacks, even considering statistical adjustment for rural location. Racial and economic disparities were greater for the corporateowned and operated CAFOs than for the dwindling number of independent operations. Furthermore, the research showed that hog CAFOs were predominantly located in areas where residents depend on groundwater for drinking.

Next, the research team conducted a rural health survey to address concerns of local residents who reported respiratory, gastrointestinal and other symptoms associated with foul odors from hog CAFOs. Community consultants introduced trained interviewers to residents in three neighborhoods, one with a hog CAFO, one with a dairy, and one with no industrial livestock. Participants were asked about a range of symptoms they had experienced in the last six months, as well as about their quality of life. Results showed that residents within two miles of the hog operation reported more headaches, mucous membrane irritation, coughing and nausea than residents in the other two communities. Reports of other miscellaneous health problems, such as backache and hearing loss, were similar in the three areas, suggesting that hog CAFO neighbors were not over-reporting symptoms.

Hope for Sustainable Hog Farming
The studies conducted by CCT and UNC-Chapel Hill focused on concerns of people whose homes, quality of life, health, jobs, property values and communities are most directly impacted by industrial hog production. But local issues were of less interest to members of the Hog Roundtable who lived in urban areas and were more concerned with the industry’s impacts on recreation, wildlife and water quality in areas far downstream from hog CAFOs communities. The Roundtable’s ability to act as an effective agent of change was diminished by differences in perspective between rural community members and mainstream environmental groups and lobbyists who were more willing to make compromises with politicians affiliated with the hog industry. Furthermore, white groups were uncomfortable addressing the issues of environmental racism and worker rights raised by African-American members of the Roundtable. Black members argued that environmental and occupational impacts of industrial hog production were examples of race and class exploitation that undermine the well being of Southern rural workers and people of color at the expense of wealthy whites in the South and other regions.

The efforts of CCT and the Hog Roundtable were part of a wave of public opposition to the hog industry in North Carolina that led to a statewide moratorium on hog factory construction in 1997, which is still in force. However, after some member organizations participated in an agreement between Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer, and the state attorney general to conduct research into alternative waste management technology, the Hog Roundtable ceased to meet regularly. Many community organizations considered the agreement to be a sellout since the agreement did not promise to make any changes unless the industry found them to be “economically feasible.”

The Hog Roundtable contributed to the broader movement to address impacts of industrial hog production in North Carolina, including efforts to stop new slaughterhouses; impose a moratorium on construction and expansion of hog CAFOs; and create opportunities for sustainable hog farming. Despite its ultimate demise, the Roundtable was a promising effort to unite environmental, civil rights, and economic justice organizations across race, class and regional divisions. It provided a powerful model and hope for a movement toward a more just and sustainable future.

Gary R Grant is executive director of Concerned Citizens of Tillery, a community-based organization whose purpose is to promote cultural awareness and improve the social, economic and educational welfare of the citizens in the community through self-development.

Steve Wing is on the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. He focuses on environmental and occupational epidemiology.

Nuclear Testing and Native Peoples

Tribal research uncovers unexpected exposures

The Native Community Action Council (NCAC) is made up of 15 community representatives, both Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute, who are knowledgeable as activists, spiritual leaders, elders, Native leaders, and cultural historians, and who represent Native communities downwind from the Nevada Test Site. It is the objective and purpose of the NCAC to preserve traditional histories for our future generations and to protect our peoples’ rights and benefits, which should accrue to us pursuant to our tribal customs, by empowering our communities in understanding and managing the risks of radiation and other health-related concerns. As a special health and radiation project of the Ely Shoshone Tribe and the NCAC, the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities (NRMNC) project was created in 1994 to educate Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities on the health effects caused by radioactive contamination.

11-2 Nuclear Testing and Native Peoples

Since the beginning of the nuclear age very little has been done to protect the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute’s health and environment from abuse. The U.S. government continues to pollute our Mother Earth with plutonium and other persistent radioactive isotopes in the research, production and maintenance of nuclear bombs. When the Department of Energy (DOE) calculated radiation exposures from the Nevada Test Site in the late 1980s, it neglected to consider unique Native lifestyles. Doses were calculated for nine different lifestyle models, yet none of them took into account the potential risks to Native people.

With this in mind Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council began looking for the truth about how radioactive fallout affected the health of our people and land. In 1993 the Childhood Cancer Research Institute, which has since grown into the Community-Based Hazard Management Program at Clark University (Worcester, MA), was contacted for assistance. That was the beginning phase of the NRMNC project, which has had ongoing support and funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all in partnership and collaboration with the Ely Shoshone Tribe, technical researchers from Clark University, and community-based researchers from the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities.

Through this special project the NCAC requires community control and empowerment for all funded health research activities due to the under-representation of Native Communities in previous studies on the effects of nuclear fallout. We have trained our Native people to strengthen our capacity for community-based environmental health activities. Community-based researchers have conducted, transcribed, and organized all of the interviews for the project and have been trained in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a computer mapping technology. Community information has been compiled in a Community Exposure Profile, a “living document” written by and for the communities. Community staff have also created and distributed pamphlets and newsletters, and held workshops and presentations on our findings in over 15 communities, and at local, regional and national gatherings.

Community Knowledge and Research
The NRNMC’s local knowledge program has allowed us to gather extensive information from elders of the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities about the lifestyle, culture and socio-demographic characteristics of our recent history. We have collected firsthand observations of the above-ground nuclear test era (1951-62), including observations of environmental abnormalities (such as sick and dying livestock and wildlife), observations of health problems, and descriptions of tests. Some elders remembered visible radiation exposure effects, such as reddening of the skin or hair loss, while living and working outdoors in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many elders reported hearing and feeling abrupt vibrations “like a sonic boom” or seeing “beautifullycolored clouds” and “white dust clouds” traveling through the mountains and valleys from the test site after seeing flashes in the south.

We have also collected critical information about our housing, mobility, diet, and subsistence activities to give a more accurate description of potential radiation exposures. Our findings demonstrate additional and significant exposures that were experienced with Native lifestyles. The most alarming evidence generated so far is based on the fact that Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute families would often eat contaminated wildlife. One particular exposure pathway, the consumption of wild rabbits, was closely analyzed. It became apparent that the thyroid glands of rabbits accumulated radioactive iodine after nuclear weapons tests. Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute families almost always ate several rabbits each week, including the thyroids. Technical researchers at Clark University have used this knowledge to estimate significant doses of radioactive iodine, doses which were not counted by the DOE or the National Cancer Institute. Young children in Duckwater, Nevada, for example, are estimated to have received thyroid doses roughly a few 1,000 times greater than the average daily dose from natural sources of radiation from each of several test events depositing fallout on the community.

These doses are in addition to the doses from contaminated milk that both Native and non-Native residents received. Cows eating contaminated grass passed on the contamination in their milk; Native communities in the 1950s typically consumed fresh local milk and experienced higher exposures than people drinking store-bought milk. We concluded that residents of Duckwater, Shivwits, and other Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities received thyroid doses several-fold higher than non-Native residents in the area.

Studies of thyroid cancer in southwest Utah, around Chernobyl, and in children treated medically with radiation lead us to the further conclusion that Native community residents exposed to fallout as young children experienced roughly twice the thyroid cancer risk of non-Native people. While these results are based on the consumption of wild rabbits, other exposure pathways, including consumption of other small wild game that were routinely eaten at different times of the year, should also be kept in mind.

Above-ground nuclear weapons testing ended in 1962 and our communities have become less dependent on local game for food as local game has become more scarce. However, underground testing was carried out at the test site until 1992 and may resume; these tests have sometimes leaked radioactive fallout outside of the test site at lower levels. More importantly, traditional lifestyles have not been forgotten—although wildlife have suffered since the invasion of Euro-Americans, we hope that we will be able to reestablish our customary diet in a healthier future.

A Model for Managing Hazards
The NRMNC project has served as a national model for conducting health research and education in Native American communities for the purpose of environmental justice. Our work has demonstrated the need for us to take responsibility and control of our own community health issues. Our people must gain an understanding of these complex issues and determine our needs so that we can protect and preserve the health of our people.

The following are being considered for a community-based nuclear hazards management plan: environmental monitoring, a local knowledge program, legal recourse, medical surveillance, health and ecological research, implementation of a geographical information system, and a community education program. Health records, for example, have been poorly maintained over the years and we will have to take responsibility for linking exposures and health effects according to our experience. We are also currently expanding our focus; although the Yucca Mountain waste site has until recently been outside the scope of our project, we are now beginning to work on issues of nuclear waste transportation through our lands.

The Board of Directors of the NCAC maintains oversight of the NRMNC project and has helped to reinforce cultural history and to communicate to our communities that as Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute people, we have existed here for countless generations. This perspective must be maintained as we learn about the impacts of the Nevada Test Site.

Patricia George is project coordinator at the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities project in Ely, Nevada (nvnrmnc@mwpower.net). Abel Russ is a research associate at the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts (abelruss@riseup.net).

The following individuals have brought cultural, historical and spiritual presence to this work that will guide us in our future efforts for healing the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities from physical pain, cultural exploitation and spiritual degradation from nuclear contamination: Ian Zabarte, Corrina Bow, Virginia Sanchez (president), Margene Bullcreek (vice-president), Pauline Estevez (secretary), Grace Goad (treasurer), Maurice Frank-Churchill, Dolly BigSoldier, Corbin Harney, Calvin Meyers, Bennie Reilley Sr., Laura Saunders, Eleanor Tom, and special advisors Nilak Butler and Peter Ford.


  1. In Nevada, Yomba Shoshone, Duckwater Shoshone, Ely Shoshone, Timbisha Shoshone, and Moapa Paiute; in Utah, Shivwits Paiute, Kanosh Paiute, Koosharem Paiute, Cedar City Paiute, Indian Peaks Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshute.
  2. Church, BW et al. 1990. Overview of the Department of Energy’s Off-Site Radiation Exposure Review Project. Health Physics 59:503-10.
  3. Our initial analysis was published in 2000 (Frohmberg, E et al. 2000. The assessment of radiation exposures in Native American communities from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. Risk Analysis 20(1):101-11) and a new analysis is being prepared for publication. The National Cancer Institute failed to consider the possibility of unique Native exposures (NCI 1997. Estimated exposures and thyroid doses received by the American people from Iodine-131 in fallout following the Nevada atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and continues to ignore this unique exposure pathway.
  4. Jacob, P et al. 1999. Childhood exposure due to the Chernobyl accident and thyroid cancer risk in contaminated areas of Belarus and Russia. Br. J. Cancer 80(9), 1461-9.; Kerber, RA, et al. 1993. A cohort study of thyroid disease in relation to fallout from nuclear weapons testing. JAMA 270:2076-82; Ron, E et al. 1995. Thyroid cancer after exposure to external radiation: a pooled analysis of seven studies. Radiation Research 141:259-277.

Clearing the Air in Chinatown

Asthma advocacy stems from resident-driven research

Chinatown, located in New York City’s Lower Manhattan, is the city’s oldest Chinese community. Since the late 1800s, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived from Guangzhou, a province in southeastern China, Chinatown has been a destination for new immigrants. According to 2000 Census figures, nearly 60 percent of Chinatown residents are foreign-born.

While rich in history, Chinatown is economically poor: thirty-one percent of residents live below the poverty level. The community is also plagued by environmental problems such as poor air quality. The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) was founded in 1977 to ally the different parts of our diverse community to address such issues. We envisioned an organization that ordinary people could join to improve the community's living and working conditions. Because many families lived in turn-of-thecentury tenements or public housing with substandard conditions, CPA first helped tenants to form associations and demand basic services like heat and hot water. Since then we have worked on a wide array of issues including immigrant rights, voter empowerment, housing and health, and worker rights.

In 1996, CPA learned that Chinatown had one of the highest levels of diesel pollution in the city. We also learned that communities exposed to high amounts of diesel particulates often had high rates of asthma. In 2001, when the World Trade Center collapsed, the air around Lower Manhattan was further contaminated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered free testing of air in residential apartments south of Canal Street. This border, which was also used by agencies dispensing post-9/11 aid, included the wealthier residents living to the south of Chinatown, but excluded many in our community who were affected by asthma.

Health is a major concern to the Chinatown community. On street corners, residents line up at outreach tables to enroll in low-cost health insurance programs, and doctors’ offices in the neighborhood are often overcrowded. But Chinese immigrants do not have a tradition of environmental activism. We decided that health was the angle to use to raise community awareness about what was happening to our environment.

First, CPA informally asked some residents what they knew about asthma. We were surprised to find that people who had asthma never talked about it. It wasn’t perceived of as a problem. The only public statistics available were asthma hospitalization rates. After researching the environmental health research done by other communities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and northern Manhattan, we decide to conduct an asthma survey.

The Survey
CPA envisioned an asthma survey that would have multiple benefits. In addition to gathering information, we wanted to do education and outreach and involve many residents—everyone from parents and young people to senior citizens. We also wanted to involve community institutions such as churches, libraries, hospitals, and senior centers, and to develop new leaders.

CPA staff and volunteers developed the survey after studying a similar one done by El Puente, an environmental justice organization in Brooklyn. We also visited the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA) and talked to staff members there who gave us helpful information and advice both before and after our survey. Young people, especially high school and college students, played a big role during this stage. More than 30 multilingual volunteers (speaking several Chinese dialects as well as English) worked to develop and administer the survey, and later, to analyze results.

Since most Chinatown residents work long hours and spend much of their free time outside the home, we decided to reach residents in public places, such as parks, the library, hospitals and community centers. We also wanted to map our results, so we asked people where they lived and recorded that information on the survey sheet. We found that almost everyone we approached was very concerned about the environment and wanted to do something about it.

In Summer 2002, we released the results: one in five households (out of 580 households) reported having a person with asthma living there. We also found that more than half of those asthmatics were children, and 63 percent were diagnosed with asthma after moving to their current apartments. Through one of our members, we acquired and learned to use software to make a map showing the concentrations of people with asthma by zip code. We found that central Chinatown, an area with higher concentrations of traffic and commercial activity, also had a higher concentration of residents with asthma.

Our survey showed a snapshot of our community’s situation and served as an important tool for organizing efforts. During Asthma Awareness Month this May, we organized the first-ever asthma health fair in Chinatown, collaborating with a few other Chinatown groups. Several other asthma awareness events were organized with funding from the local health department. We also testified at public hearings about post-September-11 air quality and asthma in Chinatown. After a great deal of pressure from community residents and allies, the EPA announced that the borders for post-September 11 residential environmental testing would be expanded to include more low-income residents. Also, this past summer, a local youth group made a video about asthma with our information and assistance.

Research, Education, Organizing
In environmental justice struggles, anecdotes and experience are usually not enough to show powerful decision makers that a problem is serious. Numbers and data are often required and the asthma survey provided some of that evidence. However, community needs cannot be portrayed strictly through numbers, maps and pie charts. We need to show the human side and our voices must be heard. Currently, CPA is conducting a two-month Chinatown Environmental Health Leadership Training program through which a group of parents and other residents are learning about the environment and gaining public speaking and leadership skills. Word of this program has spread and members and staff from other organizations in our community want to participate.

Through our efforts, we learned a lot about different ways air quality affects our health. We learned that there are many different sources of air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, that still need to be addressed. We learned that our community has many concerns about the environment. To answer those concerns, we need to make sure that scientific research is driven by community and also combined with education and organizing. There is a lot of work to do in terms of advocacy, capacity building and developing new leaders. Everyone from different corners of the community must join together in the fight for a healthier environment.

Mae Lee is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in New York.

Youth Participation in Research

Weighing the benefits and challenges of partnerships

Research studies that bring youth and scientific researchers together are often complex. Although many people play a role in the research, including principal investigators, academics, scientists, researchers, and community participants, youth are frequently overlooked. Understanding how the different groups perceive research is essential if the research process is to succeed and meet the different needs of groups, including youth. Children and teens are among those most affected by environmental and public health problems, and for that reason, should be actively involved in any research that has an impact on their communities.

11-2 Youth Participation in Research_1
In the spring of 1997, the River Ambassador Program (RAP), a volunteer-based youth program supported by the Center for Family, Work and Community at the University of Massachusetts- Lowell, formed to assist in a number of community functions. To learn about and connect with their culture, the teens first volunteered for a newly organized event called the Southeast Asian Water Festival. Currently, the program not only provides project-based, hands-on activities relating to environmental justice issues, but it also gives students the opportunities to develop and create their own environmental activities.

In recent years, many environmental interest groups and researchers have approached the program to assist with research projects. The projects range from understanding potential harm from beauty products to surveying fishing activities in Lowell’s canal. We know from experience that working with faculty from a university can be challenging. Researchers may perceive teenagers as an easy way to access the community without valuing the youth as active participants in the project. At times researchers don’t recognize that certain research methods, such as surveys and focus groups, don’t appeal to the youth. Other times research projects are unsuccessful because of a lack of communication or understanding of how a youth program functions; for example, complicated consent forms and procedures are obstacles to youth-researcher collaborations.

Given these challenges, how should adults work with teens on a research projects? One challenge is to identify research methods that will interest youth. Most youth will only participate if they can connect with the research and researchers. Researchers who are friendly and interested in youth are more successful. Another key piece to effective research is making sure teens are fully informed of the project from beginning to end. It is helpful for the teens to understand the stages and processes of the research, and to have the research serve as a learning tool. Youth also know when they are being used, so the interaction they have with researchers must enable them to feel like integral parts of the project, and affirm that their input is valuable.

RAP Research Projects
Following are several examples of RAP research activities. These examples describe the range of projects made available to youth and also detail some problems that can emerge in youth-expert partnerships.

1) The Food Ethnography Project, concluded in 2003, studied food and cultural practices within the Cambodian community, particularly practices that might affect environmental health. This project met multiple goals: it connected to an intergenerational Khmer community through an interview process; and captured and recorded experiences that helped University of Massachusetts researchers, local health providers and a community group better understand food practices. The project also helped researchers become more familiar with cultural practices and important traditions (e.g. fishing, gardening and farming) that may lead to increased environmental health risks from living in a highly urbanized area such as Lowell. The project ultimately sought to understand the best ways to share information about food and environmental health.

11-2 Youth Participation in Research_2
Selected teens from the River Ambassador Program were trained by the ethnographers and researchers to be professional interviewers and researchers. The research was unique because it was teen-driven and allowed room for flexibility. Teens had the opportunity to perform the research at home at times that were convenient to them. This gave them a chance to interview friends and family during dinnertime or in a school cafeteria, and to take photos of their favorite everyday foods.

Besides participating in the research, the teens also enjoyed learning about the researchers themselves. Teens are always in search of positive role models and this project took a personal tone and allowed the teens to explore their curiosity. The teens were interested in learning about ethnography (the study of human cultures), the needed skills and education, and how much ethnographers are paid. A successful connection between youth and researchers is important as a means of ensuring long-term sensitive and useful research. If any of the youth become inspired or encouraged through this interaction to explore education and a career in environmental health or a related field, then there could be the additional success of cultivating, in the long run, a researcher who is from the community instead of an “outsider.” This is especially important with a community of relatively new immigrants.

2) The Canal Fish Project, completed this year, had the goals of educating and promoting awareness about fish consumption and the dangers of mercury in fish to the Lowell community. One challenging aspect of this project was identifying a common message. There were disagreements among the partners about whether or not to include the findings on water quality, and whether or not to emphasize the dangers of fish consumption. Some partners did not want to be responsible for stating that fish, potentially contaminated with mercury from the river, were safe to eat. Others recognized the central cultural and nutritional role of fish in the Southeast Asian communities of Lowell, and felt it would be inappropriate to create fear about consuming those fish.

Yet another challenge for effective youth participation was that the project focused almost entirely on the environmental science component and lacked authentic community involvement. A nonresident organization led the project with funding from a local community organization. Multiple technical assistance partners were brought in to distribute the roles but the issue of project ownership was unclear. Be-cause some of the project leaders were not from Lowell, they were less educated about the fact that Lowell is an immigrant community, rich in culture and diversity. They relied mostly on the knowledge of community organizations and the teens. This project was not successful in our eyes. If done differently, we would like to be part of the decision-making process from the start. The project would also include community inputs, shared data, and stipends for teens.

3) Water Quality Testing began when we realized existing water quality testing had yet to involve the Southeast Asian community even though many Southeast Asian families fished and swam in the river. The results from the water quality testing were meant to draw the attention of families, but we failed with the "hands-on" component. We had hoped to have children participate in the water quality testing at the Southeast Asian Water Festival but we found that parents considered the river too polluted to allow their children to wade into even shallow parts.

In addition to testing the water, we hoped to build linkages between the community and local organizations to heighten community awareness of water issues, and to reach parents through their children. We succeeded to some extent on these goals: information was distributed during local community events and festivals.

Lessons Learned
Following are some lessons we have learned about how to succeed in involving teens in research that makes a difference in their lives:

  1. In every research project, researchers need to make room for flexibility (i.e. adjusting research to suit youth interest, schedules) and realize that nothing quite works according to plan.
  2. Listening to the needs of the participants is vital to the success of any project. By building a sense of trust and understanding both groups will be able to function together.
  3. Working with teens can be complicated but also very rewarding.

Khan Chao and Sokny Long are co-advisors to the River Ambassador Program (RAP) at the Center for Family, Work and Community at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. RAP is a program of the New Ventures Environmental Justice Partnership, whose goal is to strengthen environmental health research and applications to improve the health of refugees and immigrants by expanding partnerships, developing a stronger university/community relationship, sharing innovations, and drawing strength from immigrant youth.

Research in Action

Community organizers and advocates worldwide are making efforts to provide low-income and people-of-color communities with the scientific research and technology they need to launch campaigns and protect their communities from environmental harm. The following is just a sampling of such endeavors that groups can learn from and incorporate into their work.


Academic Institutions, Communities and Agencies Network (ACA-Net)
ACA-Net joins together historically black colleges and universities with communities and government agencies in a collaborative effort to respond to environmental hazards in urban and rural communities. By building a network of people-of-color scientists and professional technicians committed to solving environmental injustices, ACA-Net provides communities with emergency, short-term, and long-term resources for achieving non-toxic living environments.
Mildred McClain, Executive Director, ACA-Net
1115 Habersham St, Savannah, GA, 21401
Tel: (912)233-0907 Fax: (912)233-5105

Environmental Justice & Health Union (EJHU)
The mission of the EJHU is to identify tools to help environmental justice activists and environmental health professionals work together to reduce environmental disease in poor minority communities. EJHU produces Catalyst, a monthly newsletter, distributed free to small community groups, with up-to-date information on environmental justice, environmental health and opportunities for partnerships. They also publish reports analyzing racial disparities in environmental health data collected by the federal government.
Max Weintraub, Director
Environmental Justice & Health Union
8 Captain Drive, #355
Emeryville, CA 94608

Southern California Environmental Justice Collaborative (SCEJC)
Initiated in 1998 by Communities for a Better Environment, SCEJC brings together academic and independent researchers to conduct community-based participatory research on air quality and environmental justice, and to provide scientific and environmental policy training to community organizations in Southern California. The Collaborative has conducted and published studies documenting racial disparities in exposures to environmental hazards. This research has supported successful community campaigns to create stronger air quality standards in Southern California and to promote environmental justice policies statewide.
Michele Prichard, Director of Special Projects
Liberty Hill Foundation
2121 Cloverfield, Suite 113
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310) 453-3611 ext. 104

Progressive Technology Project (PTP)
PTP seeks to help organizations in underserved communities realize their potential through information technology. Through events, online resources, and the Community Organizing Technology Grants program, PTP provides community groups with technological capacity building, information exchange forums and grant-making assistance.
Mark Sherman, Executive Director
2801 21st Ave S, Ste 132E
Minneapolis, MN 55407
Tel: (612) 724-2600

Environmental Public Health Tracking
Launched nationally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Public Health Tracking is a program being implemented across the country at state and local levels. The fundamental objective is to coordinate and enhance existing information systems in order to reduce the crippling burden of disease. An Environmental Health Tracking System will document exposures to environmental pollutants; track disease trends over time and geography; enable researchers to better link exposures and disease; provide the scientific basis for evaluating and developing public health and environmental protection policies; and facilitate the publics’ right-to-know about environmental health issues. For more information:


groundWork partners with communities exposed to environmental hazards in Southern Africa to attain a better quality of life through civic participation. The organization achieved international recognition for their landmark “Bucket Brigades” collaboration with their American partner, Communities for a Better Environment, facilitated by the South African Exchange Program for Environmental Justice. This project allowed vulnerable South African communities to monitor their own air quality in an effort to secure legally-binding emissions standards.
Bobby Peek, Director, groundWork
Tel: +27 (0)33 342 5662 Fax: +27 (0)33 342 5665

Pollution Monitoring Laboratory, Center for Science & Environment (CSE)
CSE has worked for over 20 years to raise awareness about environmental hazards in India and to encourage communities as well as the government to take action to reduce public health risks posed by these hazards. Also known as the “People’s Lab,” the Pollution Monitoring Lab investigates food, water, soil, air, and biological materials for contamination. The lab publicizes its results widely to empower communities to fight the polluters who compromise their health.
Sunita Narain, Director Center for Science & Environment
41, Tughlakabad Institutional Area
New Delhi-110062, INDIA
Tel: +91 (011) 29955124 Fax: +91 (011) 29955879

Environment Support Group
Based in Bangalore, India, Environment Support Group (ESG) believes in promoting patterns of development that are socially just, economically viable, ecologically sustainable, politically participative and culturally vibrant. ESG provides trainings on environmental science, legislation and policies, perspectives of development, alternatives, and campaign strategies for a variety of focus groups at the village, district and regional levels. It is supported by an inhouse staff consisting of technically qualified researchers, and draws upon diverse expertise on a case-by-case basis.
Environment Support Group
36 Reservoir Road, Basavanagudi
Bangalore 560 004 INDIA
Telefax: 91-80-6657995/6722563 Fax: 91-80-2274699 http://www.cfar.umd.edu/~venu/ESG/

Curitiba Research and Urban Planning Institute (IPPUC)
Curitiba, Brazil Curitiba, a city in the south of Brazil, is world renowned as a sustainable city. IPPUC supports continued sustainability efforts through research. Using maps and statistics, IPPUC gives the local administration a picture of urban reality and provides tools for diagnosing and solving problems affecting the community. Additionally, IPPUC supports citizen research; one example is their Geographic Information Systems (GIS) division. Created in 1989, the GIS division is in charge of systematizing GIS-based information about the city of Curitiba, with the purpose of analyzing urban interventions and providing support for Curitiba's development plans. For more information go to:
rua Bom Jesus, 669
Curitiba, PR, Brasil

Compiled by Jessica DiComillo of WEACT for Environmental Justice in Northern Manhattan.


Shifting Science: The Alternatives

11-2 Shifting Science: The Alternatives Section Divider
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Holistic Risk Assessment

A new paradigm for environmental risk management

Native American Nations have become increasingly concerned about the adverse effects that toxic substances have on human health and the health of the environments on which these communities depend (1-3). In the case of the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, (a Native American community located along the St. Lawrence River between northern New York and western Quebec / eastern Ontario), local residents, environmental organizations and leaders have mounted a strong response to the environmental degradation of their lands and waters.

Beginning in the 1950s, cheap hydroelectric power provided by the St. Lawrence-FDR Power Project attracted several industries to the area that have since polluted Mohawk waters, land, sediment and air. The community is located immediately adjacent to the General Motors Powertrain Division, and is downwind, downstream and down-gradient from Reynolds Metals and the Aluminum Company of America, all federal or state Superfund sites. Toxicants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dibenzofurans, dioxins, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, fluorides, cyanide, aluminum, arsenic, chromium and styrene have been released into the air and water, and have contaminated the St. Lawrence River, its tributaries, and Mohawk lands, air and water, endangering traditional land usage, subsistence lifestyles and cultural practices.

For over 25 years, the people of Akwesasne have waged a difficult battle to ensure that PCBs and other toxic substances released from neighboring industries are adequately remediated and ecosystems restored to their former health. Despite years of research at Akwesasne, risk assessment methods used by outside investigators remain inadequate. Such methods fail to account for, or include, a holistic approach for assessing the social, cultural, and spiritual values, beliefs and practices that link the Mohawks to their environment.

Need for Change
Risk assessment has traditionally focused on the analysis of biologic, chemical and physical data regarding the effects of hazards, primarily to human physical health (4,5). In 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its Final Guidelines for Ecological Risk Assessment, which focus on the evaluation of impacts to ecosystems (6). Risk assessments are performed on a routine basis by government agencies or their contractors, and are used as a foundation for decision-making and management of risk. The basic process entailed in conducting risk assessments of toxic substances involves estimating toxicity (and lack of toxicity), estimating real-world exposure, and comparing potency of toxicity with expected exposure.

However, because the scientific community can never know all the ways that a substance can affect individuals, it’s impossible to state with certainty that exposure will cause no or minimal harm. Scientists and activists alike have questioned the purpose of risk assessment, suggesting that it appears to justify harm inflicted on certain people by using the vocabulary of science to draw attention away from the need for action (7-9). Through its communitybased research, the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment has found that traditional risk assessment and management models have not been effective in defining environmental risk, promoting remediation, decreasing exposure, or restoring community health at Akwesasne (10, 11). Further experiences reflect the use of scientific studies and debates as tools by responsible parties to manipulate situations and impede remediation and restoration, all to the benefit of the polluter (10, 12, 13).

Exposure is only one part of susceptibility to disease, and many toxicologic studies upon which risk assessments are based have been conducted using healthy groups of adult animals. Variations in susceptibility exist within Native communities and are based on a wide variety of factors including age, sex, genetic susceptibility, state of health and many other variables (3, 14, 15). Cultural value systems followed by Native people often mandate special protections and considerations be given for groups of individuals, including elders, unborn generations of children, and sensitive species of wildlife (3, 16, 17, 18). The concern for all people, especially the most vulnerable, may run counter to the processes followed by scientists conducting epidemiologic studies and risk assessments, who tend to focus on identifying average exposures in a given population and providing protection based on the average exposed individual. However, it is those persons in the 95th percentile in exposure scenarios who are the very people that First Nations’ decision makers are mandated to protect.

Sociocultural Implications
Impacts and risks to the social, cultural, and spiritual practices of Native peoples must be included in identifying and addressing risks to health (3,10,14,17,19- 21,22-24). In the case of the Akwesasne, it has been found that the traditional cultural practices that express and reaffirm identity and culture (i.e. gardening, hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering of plants) may increase exposure (or perception of exposure) of community members to toxic substances. At the same time, however, healthcare providers, community members, researchers, and environmental staff have been quick to note that adverse health effects have resulted when Mohawk people were forced to abandon traditional cultural practices in order to protect their health and the health of future generations (10,16,25,11,26,27).

In Akwesasne, potentially serious adverse health effects can result when people stop traditional cultural practices. When traditional foods such as fish are no longer eaten, alternative diets are consumed that are often high in fat and calories and low in vitamins and nutrients. This type of dietary change has been linked to health problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer and obesity (26-28). Consequently, serious health problems can result when traditional foods are no longer consumed, even if there is little or no exposure to toxic substances.

Although most affected communities would agree that sociocultural impacts should be included in any discussion of risk assessment, current models have no way to incorporate or deal with these effects except to call them value judgments (29). Even recent attempts to develop frameworks that incorporate broader real world contexts and stakeholder participation into risk assessment continue to be flawed because “alternative” types of information (social, cultural, economic, environmental justice) are viewed as merely providing a context for risk assessment. No methodologies exist to allow valuable information about all effects to be integrated into the risk assessment itself.

A new paradigm of risk-based decision-making—distinct from the one in which Native people often find themselves in a reactive mode, committing valuable resources to attempt to improve poorly conducted risk assessments—is clearly needed.

Holistic Decision Making
Holistic risk assessment is a way to integrate human health and ecological risk, and make better decisions that are more protective of people and the earth as a whole (30-34). Such a framework integrates both a consideration of the effects of contaminants on the physical health of human beings, and holistically examines impacts on the natural world, and on cultural, social, subsistence, economic and spiritual practices. To incorporate these many different effects, a holistic model would need to examine and include aspects from many fields of study, integrating qualitative research findings with the sciences of toxicology, epidemiology and ecology.

This expanded definition of health would be more inclusive than just the absence of disease or injury. Many community members at Akwesasne, for example, believe that concepts of health should include and reflect traditional Native American values, attitudes, beliefs and practices. As with many Native communities, however, traditional views of health are integrated such that it becomes impossible to consider physical, mental, spiritual, and social well-being in isolation (16,27).

In addition to the physical, social and cultural determinants of human health, the health of the natural world is central. This is especially true for Native peoples, where relationships among and between human beings and the natural and spiritual worlds are built on concepts of respect, caring, appreciation, duty, purpose, and responsibility (3,10,14,34, 35-37). Health, then, has many definitions for the Mohawk people. Health is based on peaceful, sustainable relationships with other peoples including family, community, Nation, the natural world and spiritual beings.

To be successful in developing a holistic, integrated approach to addressing environmental contamination problems, it is essential that affected communities be involved directly in both meaningful decisionmaking and in researching impacts and alternatives. Support for community capacity building, training, community-level action, communication, and leadership building are integral to any successful research. Furthermore, as part of any risk management strategy, the affected community needs to play a key role in identifying ways to remediate, restore, or replace resources that have been affected.

It is clear that if a holistic approach is to be used to solve human health and environmental problems, it must integrate the best information that can be found from many different sources, especially those that are most knowledgeable and intimately con-nected to the problems at hand. The First Environ-ment Program at Akwesasne has worked to follow a community environmental health research paradigm that is based on principles of environmental justice. This paradigm states that knowledge must be generated and disseminated in a shared process within the community in a way that allows people to reclaim their power to protect their families and the natural world.

Finally, because it is essential to minimize the time in which individuals, communities, and ecosystems are negatively impacted, an effective means for evaluating decision-making processes needs to be developed to ensure that actions have focused on the right issues, have served to prevent problems, and have produced sound results in a timely fashion. In developing an integrated framework for risk-based environmental decision-making, there is much to be learned from Native people, who have experience in developing equitable partnerships and using holistic, integrated thinking to solve problems.

This article is adapted from an article published in the April 2002 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. Mary Arquette, Maxine Cole, Brenda LaFrance, Margaret Peters, Elvera Sargent and Vivian Smoke are members of the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment. Additional authors include Katsi Cook of Iewirokwas Program; James Ransom of Haudenosaunee Task Force on the Environment; and Arlene Stairs of Queens University.

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  2. Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. An indigenous approach to decisionmaking. In: Proceedings of the Tribal Risk Assessment Forum, 24-26 June 1996, Fort Hall Indian Reservation, ID. New Orleans, LA:Xavier University of Louisiana, 1996;156.
  3. Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Department of Natural Resources. Scoping Report: Nuclear Risks in Tribal Communities. Umatilla Indian Reservation, OR:Department of Natural Resources, 1995.
  4. National Research Council. Risk Assessment in the Federal Government: Managing the Process. Washington, DC:National Academy Press, 1983.
  5. Health Canada. Health Risk Determination: The Challenge of Health Protection. Ottawa, ON:Health Protection Branch, 1993.
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  7. O’Brien M. When harm is not necessary; risk assessment as diversion. In: Reclaiming the Environmental Debate: The Politics of Health in a Toxic Culture (Hofrichter R, ed). Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2000; 113-134.
  8. Indigenous Environmental Network. Risk Assessment. 2 Page Communique. Indigenous Environmental Network, 1997.
  9. Goldtooth, T. Indigenous nations : summary of sovereignty and its implications for environmental protection. In: Environmental Justice: Issues, Policies and Solutions (Bryant B, ed). Washington, DC:Island Press, 1995;56-75.
  10. Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, Research Advisory Committee. Superfund clean-up at Akwesasne:a case study in environmental justice. Int J Contemp Sociol 34(2):267-290 (1997).
  11. Tarbell A, Arquette M. Akwesasne : a Native American community’s resistance to cultural and environmental damage. In: Reclaiming the Environmental Debate: The Politics of Health in a Toxic Culture (Hofrichter R, ed). Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2000; 93-111.
  12. Quigley D. Toward Democratic Risk Assessment and Post-Normal Science. CCRI, 5-7 October 1994. Worcester, MA:Clark University, 1994.
  13. Stone W. Crisis at Akwesasne, Day II, Transcript. New York State Assembly Hearings. 288-289. Albany, NY, 2 August 1990.
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  15. Mott L. The disproportionate impact of environmental health threats to children of color. Environ Health Perspect 103(suppl 6):33-35 (1995).
  16. First Environment Communications Project, Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment. Akwesasne Mohawk “Dreaming Our Future,” Search Conference Documentary Report. Akwesasne, Mohawk National: FECP, 1995.
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  18. Cook K. Introduction. First Environ 1:2 (1992).
  19. Fernandez R. Evaluating the loss of kinship structures: a case study of North American Indians. Hum Organ 46(1):1-9 (1987).
  20. Wheatley B, Paradis S. Balancing human exposure, risk and reality: questions raised by the Canadian Aboriginal Methylmercury Program. Neurotoxicology 17(1):241-250 (1996).
  21. Hild C. Cultural concerns regarding contaminants in Alaskan local foods. Circumpolar Health 57(suppl 1):S61-S66 (1998).
  22. Geisler C. Social impact assessment and native communities. In: Embracing Mother Earth, A Rapporteur’s Report on the Indigenous Knowledge Conference, 25-26 October, 1996 Buffalo, New York. Ithaca, NY:Akwe:kon Press,1996;41-42.
  23. Erikson K. The Ojibwa of grassy narrows. In: A New Species of Trouble: The Human Experience of Modern Disasters. New York:W.W. Norton, 1994;27-57.
  24. Curtis S. Cultural relativism and risk-assessment strategies for federal projects. Hum Organ 51(1):65-70 (1992).
  25. Martin K. Akwesasne: industrial contamination-environmental recovery. Winds of Change (Summer):16-21 (1996).
  26. Cook-Jackson B. Environmental Injustice at Akwesasne: A Mohawk Clinician’s View. Akwesasne Notes, in press.
  27. Cook K. Unpublished data, 1999.
  28. Mohawk J. Revitalizing traditional knowledge. In: Embracing Mother Earth, A Rapporteur’s Report on the Indigenous Knowledge Conference, 25-26 October, 1996 Buffalo, New York. Ithaca, NY:Akwe:kon Press,1996;9-11.
  29. Presidential/Congressional Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management. Framework for Environmental Health Risk Management – Final Report Vols 1 and 2. Washington, DC:US Environmental Protection Agency, 1997.
  30. Harvey T, Mahaffey K, Velazquez, Dourson M. Holistic risk assessment : an emergency process for environmental decisions. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol 22:110-117.
  31. Stonehouse D, Giraldez C, Van Vuuren W. Holistic policy approaches to natural resources management and environmental care. J Soil Water Conserv 52:22-25 (1997).
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  34. Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force. The Words That Come Before All Else. Akwesasne Territory:Native North American Travelling College, 2000.
  35.   North American Indian Travelling College. Traditional Teachings. Akwesasne Nation:NAITC, 1984.
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  37. Haudenosaunee Resources Center. Haudenosaunee Well-Being (Fall):1-4 (2000).

The Science of Precaution

Barrio Logan residents use research and land use planning to prevent harm

Environmental justice activists commonly complain about incompatible land uses that put community residents and polluting industries close to one another. Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) and residents of Barrio Logan in San Diego have advocated for more than 15 years to remedy land use dilemmas through such strategies as re-zoning; moving or shutting down small industrial facilities; and implementing maximum pollution prevention for large industries that cannot move such as shipyards.

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The community achieved a victory in March 2002 when a chrome plating shop, Master Plating, was closed by court order after an air toxics monitor found high levels of hexavalent chromium at residences nearby. Related outcomes include a new land use planning effort for the community, and action at the California state level to include environmental justice and land use considerations in air regulations and in new environmental justice policies focusing on precaution. EHC and the community applaud these successes but emphasize that precaution, not proof of harm, should be the guiding principle for scientific research, land use planning, and future environmental justice organizing.

Land Use in Logan
The Logan area is an historic neighborhood southeast of downtown San Diego. Since early in the last century, Logan has been a low-income Latino community. Median household income in Logan in 1990 was less than half the median in San Diego County as a whole.

During the 1960's the community was bisected by the I-5 freeway. The small portion of Logan that lies west of the freeway is Barrio Logan. Like many older, inner city neighborhoods, Barrio Logan has an incompatible mix of land uses that includes large and small industries, homes, freeways, railroad tracks, schools, Navy facilities and parks. It’s located adjacent to San Diego Bay, exposing the community to tons of diesel exhaust from ships and trucks going to and from the Port of San Diego. Some 129 industries with regulated hazardous materials coexist with its 5,440 residents in an area of less than 1.2 square miles.

EHC recognized that proximity to major roads and freeways that cut through the community was a major concern. A majority of Barrio Logan residents live within 500 feet of a freeway or major road. Since the mid-1980s, EHC has worked in the Barrio Logan community to gather information about air quality. As EHC documented the results of the mixed use zoning that prevails in Barrio Logan, it became aware of probable health hazards to residents from toxic air emissions from a wide variety of businesses located nearby, often next door to homes. Residents told EHC that their children seemed to suffer more asthma, upper respiratory infections, and skin and eye disorders than they had in other communities.

Research and Results
EHC recognized that an air toxics monitor was critical to determining the severity of air quality in the Barrio. EHC appealed directly to the State agency that oversees the local air pollution districts, the California Air Resources Board (ARB). ARB was already engaged in neighborhood level air toxics monitoring in Los Angeles, was familiar with environmental justice concerns, and had a monitor available. In the months that followed, the decision was made by EHC and ARB to place a monitor at a middle school, Memorial Academy, situated about a half-mile from the largest shipyard and two blocks from a major freeway.

11-2 The Science of Precaution_2
Chrome platers and their hexavalent chromium emissions had been identified by EHC and community residents as a cause for concern for more than a decade. Standard computer models of dispersion of air emissions cannot accurately predict the concentration of pollutants very close to the source, yet there are residents living within 10 feet of the plating shops in Barrio Logan. Monitoring at Memorial Academy did not resolve the question of whether hexavalent chromium was present at high levels near the emission sources. Accordingly, ARB agreed to place six monitors at residences located within 200 feet of two chromium platers on Newton Street in Barrio Logan.

Monitoring was conducted from December 2001 through May 2002. High levels of hexavalent chromium were measured at the monitors near the plating shops on Newton Street. The highest levels were found in the front and back yards of one home situated immediately between the two platers. The ARB was so alarmed by the results that it issued a press release and sent a notice to the San Diego County Public Health Officer. Then the agency conducted extensive follow-up monitoring of indoor and outdoor chromium levels at both plating shops, Master Plating and Carlson & Beauloye. The average level at the backyard monitor over the entire monitoring period corresponded to a lifetime cancer risk of 114 per million, which is several times higher than federal standards for an acceptable cancer risk.

ARB and APCD also tracked the measured levels of chromium in relation to the levels of electroplating (measured by amp-hour readings), maintenance and cleaning procedures, and other activities at the shops. Analysis of the data persuaded ARB that Master Plating was the more likely source of the high outdoor levels of chromium. Subsequently, the County of San Diego filed a lawsuit against the owner of Master Plating on March 15, 2002. A temporary restraining order stopping the chrome plating operations was issued ten days later.

Shift in Strategy
The final impetus to shut down Master Plating followed an intensive air monitoring effort that cost the State government more than a million dollars. Unprecedented media coverage of the chromium findings, and election year politics, also figured into the outcome. However, because of the expense and effort, this is clearly not feasible as a routine method for addressing the thousands of other communities plagued by incompatible land uses. Dozens of facilities like Master Plating exist in Barrio Logan’s residential neighborhoods. Because local residents can’t wait for problems to be addressed one by one, incompatible land uses and environmental harm must be addressed from a broader perspective.

Historically, cities and counties have allowed industrial activities to occur in communities of color without regard to health and safety of residents. This echoes the pattern seen throughout the country, where less desirable land uses are placed in neighborhoods with the least political clout to challenge them. The challenge today is to reverse these discriminatory land use patterns.

EHC is committed to making sure that the closure of Master Plating is the kickoff to the elimination of toxic pollution from this community and other disproportionately affected communities. The shift to land use planning as an approach to protect community residents from toxic hazards is a precautionary model, one that aims to identify and prevent probable toxic hazards. In our precautionary land use planning process, we are using available scientific data on air emissions and presence of toxic substances to develop priorities—not to “prove” with absolute certainty that people are being harmed. The presence of facilities that emit chromium or diesel exhaust close to homes and schools in the Logan community almost certainly exposes residents to harmful compounds. Development of a community plan to phase out facilities that are close to residences or schools conforms with key aspects of the Precautionary Principle—i.e., to err on the side of safety and to include in decision-making the voices of those exposed to hazards.

Outcomes and Future Organizing
EHC and Barrio Logan residents’ efforts are having a direct impact on the community’s health and quality of life. Their work helps form the basis for the following state and federal policy changes:

  • The California ARB is re-evaluating and amending the Air Toxics Control Measure (ATCM) for chrome plating. Continuing efforts are needed to identify and address all sources of chromium emissions by land use planning, pollution prevention and tighter regulation.
  • ARB has also adopted Policies and Actions for Environmental Justice, the first by any agency of the California EPA, which include provisions that require development of a land-use guidance handbook (www.arb.ca.gov/ch/ej_meetings/may_10_2004_draft _land_use_handbook.pdf) to assist local officials in making informed land use decisions by considering the impacts to public health when sources of air pollution are located near residential or other sensitive land uses.
  • The City of San Diego has committed to revising the zoning and community plan for the area to address incompatible land uses. This spring, EHC and allied community organizations hosted a series of training and visioning sessions to empower community residents to be at the forefront of the community planning process.
  • The California Environmental Protection Agency adopted Environmental Justice Guidelines which require incorporation of a precautionary approach, including addressing community planning and undesirable land uses.

Joy Williams, Diane Takvorian, Paula Forbis, Melanie McCutchan and Sonya Holmquist of the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) contributed to this article. EHC is a nonprofit environmental justice organization that works in the San Diego/Tijuana region.


  1. California Air Resources Board. Technical Support Document (Preliminary Draft), Air Quality at Memorial Academy Charter School in Barrio Logan, a Neighborhood Community in San Diego (October 1999 - February 2001), March 15, 2002 draft.

Body Burden Research

Communities can use biomonitoring to pinpoint poisons, and fight back.

What if you found out that the toxic chemicals and heavy metals found in hazardous landfills were also in your body? Then, what if you learned that the companies and industries responsible for producing those poisons were not held accountable?

To answer those questions, in July 2002, eight volunteers and I agreed to have our blood and urine tested as part of a unique scientific research project initiated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in coordination with Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Commonweal. The Body Burden project was designed to identify more than 200 industrial chemicals and heavy metals in the human body. The volunteers, hailing from California, Louisiana, New York, and Virginia, had a special interest in participating in this research based on diverse experiences dealing with environmental and health issues. Their backgrounds included broadcast journalism, cancer patient counseling, breast cancer advocacy, community organizing, environmental research, litigation, and advocacy. We all wanted to know our “body burden”—that is, the type and concentration of toxins in our bodies, and the sources of these toxins.

As an attorney dedicated to environmental justice, I was more than a little curious about the impacts of industrial manufacturing on my health. I wanted to use the results of my body burden testing to make people aware of the fact that industrialization has contaminated our bodies with toxic pollution— pollution that can harm our health and the health of our children whose development from conception is threatened by the body burden of their parents.

My initial reaction upon receiving the three-ring binder filled with laboratory data and explanations was one of grief followed by anger. Although I have never lived near a landfill or a major polluting facility, I carry 77 different industrial poisons in my body. Through the simple acts of breathing, eating, and using ordinary products, I have absorbed these poisons, including polychlorinated byphenols (PCBs) and dioxins, which were banned in the United States but still remain in the environment. My body burden includes toxins that can cause cancer, reproductive damage, lung and liver disease, among other ill health effects.

11-2 Body Burden Research
Through this experience, I gained a deeper understanding of the profound sadness that community activists, who live atop landfills in Louisiana or in the shadows of the 130 petrochemical facilities in the state, must have felt when they first learned that their health and the health of their family members were jeopardized by the pollution around them. In the living rooms and kitchens of community activists, I’ve heard the stories of sons and daughters dying from cancers or being rushed to emergency rooms because of asthma attacks. Much of my work focuses on providing legal and advocacy services to African-American community leaders, who struggle for a clean and healthy environment in neighborhoods that are the dumping grounds for oil refineries, petrochemical facilities and power plants. We work together to find ways of defending families and communities from proposed hazardous industrial developments; reducing pollution at massive oil, chemical, and waste facilities; cleaning up contaminated areas; or relocating residents.

Community leaders have long used air monitoring devices to effectively compel the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and industrial companies to reduce pollution. They believe that body burden research, or biomonitoring, is the next step in achieving greater pollution reduction and elimination of industrial toxins. However, they’ve learned that in order to benefit from any research method, they’ve got to be in control of not only understanding the data, but also how it is collected and interpreted. To strengthen their capacity, they’ve discussed strategies that involve developing community experts on biomonitoring; conducting community-wide biomonitoring training workshops; counseling community volunteers; creating effective and respectful partnerships with laboratories and health researchers; planning the design of scientific research protocols and methodologies; and targeting local industrial sources of toxic pollution through biomonitoring research and advocacy.

Holding polluting industries accountable for the chemicals they manufacture and sell is long overdue. Many companies would be forced to develop safer alternative materials or undertake other activities to avoid the threats of their toxic chemicals on human health. In the United States, an inconsequential number of industrial chemicals have been thoroughly tested by U.S. environmental and health agencies for their impacts on human health. Some 75,000 chemicals remain untested despite the fact that they are manufactured in processes involving dangerous operations, transported on barges and trains with a record of hazardous spills requiring emergency response, and, ultimately, placed on the shelves of stores for our consumption. The European Union is considering legislation titled Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization of Chemicals, abbreviated as “REACH,” which would require testing chemicals for safety and, depending on the results, restricting existing and proposed industrial chemicals before they could be sold. However, news reports have uncovered that the U.S. EPA, in concert with the chemical industry, is aggressively opposing the passage of REACH into European law.

While our society demands safety in a variety of products and services, we have unwittingly allowed our government to sacrifice communities of color and our individual bodies as landfills for a host of healthdamaging industrial chemicals and heavy metals. An important lesson that I learned as a result of the Body Burden study is that I have 77 more reasons for advocating that companies stop their toxic poisoning of our health and future.

Monique Harden is an attorney and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a public interest law firm in New Orleans, Louisiana. Information about the Body Burden research project can be found at http://www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden/.


What communities must know

Biomonitoring, the study of chemical burdens in our bodies through the testing of bodily tissues and fluids (blood, urine, breast milk), can be an important community health research tool. It creates a new form of community right-to-know and can bolster organizing campaigns by providing objective evidence of exposure. However, many environmental health researchers and advocates are concerned about potential pitfalls for low-income communities of color. Some of the potential limitations to the promise of biomonitoring may include:

  • Biomonitoring alone may not provide the answers community members are seeking. Because there are few established relationships between levels of chemicals and health effects, and because health harm may result from cumulative exposures to multiple chemicals, biomonitoring of any particular chemical alone may not give sufficient information to establish links between the environment and a particular illness.
  • Biomonitoring identifies exposures that have already occurred. For example, many childhood lead poisoning prevention programs rely on testing children’s blood to identify children at risk. The problem with this approach is that it is an “after the fact” approach—by the time lead has reached levels of concern in the blood of children, damage may have already been done, and may be irreversible. This approach also essentially casts children as human lead detectors. More “upstream” approaches to lead poisoning prevention are now requiring mitigation of lead hazards in the home environment without relying on blood lead levels.
  • Biomonitoring may ignore the problem of short-term chemical effects. Certain toxins act as “drive by” chemicals; they enter the body, do extensive damage, and then leave. These chemicals represent a whole class of acute, non-bioaccumulative toxins (such as methyl isocyanate the chemical released in the 1984 Bhopal disaster) that may not be addressed through biomonitoring efforts.
  • Biomonitoring may mislead. Unclear communication of results may lead to alarm and decision-making that is adverse to health. For example, someone who may benefit from fish in his or her diet may stop eating fish after hearing about the pesticides contaminating fish. Similarly, many biomonitoring efforts focus on breast milk monitoring, because toxins accumulate in breast milk. But despite efforts to reinforce the desirability and superiority of breast milk for infants, concerns raised by perceptions of contamination may discourage breastfeeding.
  • Biomonitoring is expensive. The costs of biomonitoring can be prohibitively high for many community-based organizations. Furthermore, community groups need significant resources to interpret and apply biomonitoring results.
  • Biomonitoring may focus community attention on a single problem, diverting it from other related social and environment factors that affect health. Ill health is a product of environments where exposure to toxins occurs alongside other social and economic hazards. The relationships among a range of adverse conditions and human health is best considered comprehensively.
  • Biomonitoring can be used by industry, too. Industry has long relied on science as a tool to promote their agenda. Some industries, such as the American Chemistry Council (ACC), actually support biomonitoring. As one ACC representative has noted, “We as an industry have totally embraced biomonitoring because it takes all the guessing out of what people are exposed to.” In other words, biomonitoring may justify industry claims if little or no exposure, or link to illness, is confirmed through testing.

As with all research, communities should insist on meaningful participation in the process; coordinated documentation of information; legal access to data; training on data interpretation; and public accountability to ensure research leads to meaningful social change. Absent these elements, biomonitoring is subject to serious limitations that result from ignoring the moral and political context in which the research is done.

Compiled by Rajiv Bhatia, MD, MPH, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health Section for Occupational and Environmental Health; Barbara Brenner, executive director, Breast Cancer Action; Brenda Salgado, program manager, Breast Cancer Action; Bhavna Shamasunder, environmental health and justice program associate, Urban Habitat; and Swati Prakash, environmental health director, WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Principles for Research

Four ways to make environmental decision-making more just

1) Make the decision process more democratic. Decisions affecting public health and the environment are often made without input from impacted communities. For example, government agency approval of a proposed project is often based on the results of a risk assessment, which is normally conducted by expert consultants hired by polluting companies or by government agency professionals. Communities rarely have the resources to participate in these technical studies, and therefore have limited participation —if any—in the decision-making process.

One way of making environmental decisions more democratic is for agencies to provide funds to affected communities so they can hire their own experts to independently analyze a proposed project and develop community-based alternatives. Some governmental programs provide examples of what a more democratic approach to environmental decision-making might look like (e.g., EPA’s Technical Assistance Grants for communities affected by Superfund sites). However, such programs are limited and don’t address pollution prevention. Opportunities for meaningful and enhanced public participation must be provided before agency decisions are made. Communities have a right to know about the potential effects of a proposed activity before approval. Agencies should conduct extensive public outreach to facilitate community participation early in the process. Technical assistance should be provided for independent community review of proposed projects and alternatives. Finally, this process must ensure that public input can actually affect the outcome.

2) Use a more holistic approach. Instead of looking only at the risks of a proposed activity, officials should be urged to explore and analyze a full range of alternatives, including not taking any action. Decision makers should consider both the risks and benefits of the full range of options, allowing serious consideration of the alternatives developed by affected communities. This method of environmental analysis has been called “alternatives assessment,” and is used in a more limited way to analyze governmentsponsored projects under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Environmentalists have advocated that a more comprehensive and democratic form of alternatives assessment should become a fundamental part of all types of environmental decisionmaking, including permitting of industrial facilities, building of new freeways, and development of new consumer and industrial products. As in the NEPA context, environmental justice advocates can insist on being a part of the process throughout, and communities could develop and submit their own alternatives to a proposed activity.

Unfortunately, environmental decisions made under other laws do not normally allow for this form of community input. Even the NEPA process is not a panacea, since there is no requirement that the chosen alternative be based upon the needs and desires of affected communities. Therefore, to replace the current risk assessment and environmental decisionmaking paradigms with a process that is more just, community groups will need to pursue a long-range strategy of obtaining broad changes to most of our national and state environmental laws.

3) Use the principle of precaution. The Precautionary Principle says that where there is a threat of harm to human health or the environment, we should act to prevent it, even if causation is not conclusively established. The Precautionary Principle seeks to minimize harm by exploring a full range of alternatives for a well-informed decision.

11-2 Principles for Research

Important qualitative and semi-quantitative information about the potential adverse impacts of an activity is often available and could be used to make environmental decisions more comprehensive, more democratic and more health-protective. This is especially the case if one considers risk assessment not as a stand-alone decision-making process, but as one component of a comprehensive alternatives assessment. The use of the Precautionary Principle in this context would ensure that environmental decisions are made using the widest range of information available, while still allowing for a consideration of quantitative risk information. In this way, communities can advocate for the lowest level risk option.

4) Incorporate cumulative impacts. Project approval is often based on a narrowly conceived approach to risk management, with a singular focus on incremental risk. In reality, however, individuals are exposed to risks from a wide variety of substances from multiple sources of pollution, the cumulative impacts of which are ignored in decision-making. Under the risk assessment paradigm, individual health risks are determined to be within an “acceptable” range. Yet risks from multiple substances or clusters of sources together may easily exceed the range of “acceptability.” When added to existing risks, the incremental risk from a new source may create an unacceptable health burden in a community. Environmental justice advocates have long argued that agencies shift from traditional risk assessment towards a more comprehensive evaluation of cumulative impacts.

Some form of cumulative impacts evaluation is conducted in a number of environmental settings. For example, NEPA and other similar laws require cumulative impacts analysis of proposed federal actions, including past, present and likely future impacts, recognizing that actions may seem to have relatively minor impacts that become collectively significant over time. Under the Clean Air Act, area-wide assessments for specific pollutants are commonly prepared for planning purposes. In the Clean Water Act context, for example, when a waterway is over-polluted, the area must identify a “control strategy” sufficient to achieve reductions to meet water standards.

In the permitting context, agencies should identify “hot spots” where health risks can be limited with the goal of risk reduction. Agencies should evaluate the total health risk in an affected area before allowing additional pollution. This can be done through an area-wide grid or parcel study, on a caseby- case basis, or by conducting modeling and estimating risk for common source scenarios using existing data. Emissions from all types of sources should be used to estimate risk. When an agency lacks regulatory authority over a pollution source in the area, it should collaborate with the appropriate agency to collect data and explore options to reduce risks. To begin incorporating cumulative impacts into risk assessment, agencies should consider the additive effects from all pollutants at a facility and consider effects of other pollutants in the affected area. Risk reductions and/or local “offsets” should be required.

Agencies respond that they have limited resources and lack guidance in this regard. Tools and data exist to conduct these studies. Until a full budget for a comprehensive program is available, fees should be charged to project proponents for a full impact evaluation. However, lowering “acceptable” levels of risk may require grassroots political power as much as scientific evidence of harm.

Adapted in part from recommendations prepared for the Environmental Justice Air Quality Coalition by the Environmental Law and Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco.

Resources for Community-based Science

Related Stories: 


Community-Campus Partnerships for Health
University of Washington
Box 354809 Seattle, WA 98195-4809
(206) 543-8178

Kellogg Community Health Scholars Program
National Program Office
University of Michigan School of Public Health
109 Observatory St., M4142 SPHII
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2029
(734) 647-3065

Funding information:
WK Kellogg Foundation
1 Michigan Avenue
East Battle Creek, MI 49017

The Healthy Environments Partnership
University of Michigan-SPH Bldg 2
1420 Washington Heights
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109
Tel. (734) 615-2695
http:// www.sph.umich.edu/hep

The Environmental Justice Resource Center
Clark Atlanta University
223 James P. Brawley Drive
Atlanta, Georgia 30314
Tel. (404) 880-6911

Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program
Department of Environmental Studies
Antioch New England Graduate School
40 Avon Street
Keene, NH 03431
Tel. (603) 357-3122 x298

Community Academic Partnerships for the Environment
(formerly Community University Consortium for Regional Environmental Coalition):
http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/~gelob ter/cucrej

Labor Occupational Health Program
University of California at Berkeley
2223 Fulton Street
Berkeley, CA 94720-5120
Tel. (510) 642-5507
http://istsocrates. berkeley.edu/~lohp/index.html

Center for Popular Education & Participatory Research
5501 Tolman Hall Berkeley, CA 94720
Tel. (510) 642-2856
http:// www.cpepr.net

The Collaborative Initiative for Research Ethics in Environmental Health
501 Hall of Languages
Dept. of Religion
Syracuse University
Syracuse, NY 13244
Tel. (315) 443-3861

Government National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
Division of Extramural Research and Training
P.O. Box 12233
Research Triangle Park, NC 27709
Tel. (919) 541-3345

NIEHS Community Outreach and Education Program Resource Center
Constella Health Sciences
2605 Meridian Parkway, Suite 200
Durham, NC 27713
Tel. (919) 313-7609

Environmental Health Perspectives
c/o Brogan & Partners
1001 Winstead Drive, Suite 355
Cary, NC 27513
Tel. 1-866-541-3841

Issue on “Community, Research and Environmental Justice available at: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/docs/2002/ppl-2/toc.html

National Center for Environmental Health/Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry Information Center (NCEH/ATSDR)
(each region has their own office)
Local Tel: (404) 498-0110
Toll-free Phone: 1-888-422-8737

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
A. The Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Grant Program
B. The Office of Environmental Justice Small Grant Program
C. The EJ Community/University Partnership (CUP) Grant Program
D. The State and Tribal Environmental Justice (STEJ) Grant Program
E. The National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC)
1200 Pennsylvania Avenue NW (MC-2201A)
Washington D.C. 20460
Tel. (202) 564-2515 Toll Free: 1-800-962-6215
http://www.epa.gov/Compliance/environmentaljustice/ index.html

National Center for Environmental Health
c/o Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
1600 Clifton Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30333
Tel. (404) 639-3311
Public Inquiries: (404) 639-3534/(800) 311-3435

U.S. National Library of Medicine Toxicology and Environmental Health
Toxicology Data Network
TOXNET – http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov

Community-University Research Alliances (CURA)
Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada
350 Albert Street
P.O. Box 1610 Ottawa, ON K1P 6G4 Canada
Tel. (613) 992-0691

Non-Profit Organizations

Community Environmental Health Resource Center
227 Massachusetts Avenue, N.E.,
Suite 200
Washington D.C. 20002
Tel. (202) 543-1147

Living Knowledge – The International Science Shop Network
International Journal of Community Based Research
Science Shop for Biology
Padualaan 8, 3584 CH Utrecht
The Netherlands

Collaborative on Health & the Environment
Eleni Sotos, Program Coordinator
P.O. Box 316
Bolinas, CA 94924
(415) 868-0970
fax (415) 868-2230

The Loka Institute
660 Pennsylvania Ave. S.E., Suite 302
Washington D.C. 20003
Tel. (301) 585-9398

Science and Environmental Health Network
3704 W. Lincoln Way #282
Ames LA 50014
Tel. (515) 268-0600

Ironbound Community Corporation
Administration and Community Organizing
51 McWhorter Street
Newark, NJ 07105
Tel. (973) 589-3353

New York City Environmental Justice Alliance
115 W. 30 St. #709
New York, NY 10001
Tel. (212) 239-8882

The Institute for Community Research
2 Hartford Square West, Suite 100
Hartford, CT 06106-5128
Tel. (860) 278-2044

Global Community Monitor
222 Richland Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Tel. (415) 643-1870

The Bonner Foundation
101 Mercer Street
Princeton, NJ 08540
Tel. (609) 924-6663

Just Connections: Communities and Colleges Working to Invigorate Grassroots Democracy in Appalachia
Tel. (304) 875-3418

Community Technology Foundation of California
One Rincon Center
101 Spear St., Suite 218
San Francisco, CA 94105
Tel. (415) 371-8808

Compiled by Gabriella Conde