SAN FRANCISCO — It’s well known that California’s San Joaquin Valley has some of the worst air quality in the nation. A new study finds that the impacts of pollution are not felt uniformly across the region, but instead are clustered in urban centers and isolated rural towns.
Researchers at UC Davis used public records to map pollution sources such as hazardous waste facilities, refineries and areas under intense pesticide applications, and they overlay that data with demographic information, including poverty level, education, race/ethnicity and age.
What emerged was a picture of the state as a “patchwork” of intensely colored areas clustered around urban centers, and a string of dark dots, representing rural towns along the I-5 and I-99 from Stockton to Bakersfield.
The researchers found that one-third of the region’s 4 million people faced “extreme” levels of environmental hazards such as toxic air and water pollutants, and social risk factors (poverty, education, etc) that increase their risk for health problems.
The study’s lead author Jonathan London, who directs UC Davis’ Center for Regional Change, says the report contributes a new “finer grain” look at the impacts of pollution.
“The assumption is that we all breath the same air, [but the study shows that] some communities face a disproportional burden and are taking on a greater risk in the Valley,” said London, adding that the study reinforces what many community members already know: polluting emitters tend to be clustered around socially vulnerable populations with the least resources to deal with it.
The communities facing the biggest burden from the region’s pollution are highly concentrated in urban centers such as Fresno, Stockton, Modesto and Bakersfield and rural communities such as Woodville, Arvin, and Wasco.
Dr. John Capitman, who directs the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at California State University, Fresno, says the study highlights “inequalities in health” that help to explain a “30 year difference in life expectancy at birth between the most and least affected communities.”
“The study highlights that problems are so deeply concentrated in a subset of our communities,” he said.
The study researchers analyzed environmental hazards and social risk factors along a spectrum, with people facing the highest levels of both at one end and those facing the lowest levels on the other. At the high end, 82 percent of residents were non-white and 37 percent lived in poverty, compared to a non-white population of 25 percent and a seven percent poverty level in the low end.
Phoebe Seaton with California Rural Legal Assistance says many of the rural communities identified as “hotspots” in the report are unincorporated areas.
Seaton says these rural communities are especially vulnerable, because they are politically marginalized, relying mainly on county governments for services. These towns often lack basic sewer and safe drinking water sources, roads and lights and public safety officers.
“They are also close enough to other cities to be a dumping ground,” said Seaton, adding that these towns often house sewage treatment or hazardous waste facilities for other cities.
State Senator Michael Rubio, whose district includes Fresno, Kern, King and Tulare counties, said that the Central Valley has pressing social and economic needs, with unemployment exceeding 40 percent in some communities.
“ This action-oriented study focuses on the need to engage the community and the public to help resolve these chronic problems,” he said via email. ” Now that we are armed with updated statistics on the Valley’s health and social needs, it is time to take action to reverse these troubling trends.”
London says policymakers and regulatory officials should use the study findings to channel more resources to the hotpots identified in the study, including boosting interagency cooperation and action in places with critical needs such as unincorporated areas.
The study could also be used as a tool for greater political engagement to push for changes in the neighborhood.
As a first step, the researchers tapped community knowledge by hosting “ground-truthing” forums, where locals mapped other sources of pollution that may not be captured by public agencies.
The community-mapping exercise reveals “things that go into people’s quality of life that don’t’ show up well” through official public documents, London said. He said residents in West Fresno pinpointed a rendering plant as a source of noxious odors that were affecting people’s quality of life.
“It smells, but that’s not necessarily a health risk,” London said. “[But the smell] keeps people inside, so they don’t go exercise or they don’t walk to the market. They drive or they don’t go [outside] at all. These kinds of issues build up and they create a pattern of disease and unhealthiness.”