Ruby lives in a beautiful home in Santa Ana, California. Her parents moved in this house in 1984 after living in the US for several decades. Ruby’s father had migrated from Mexico in the 1970s and her mother followed a few years later. Throughout the years, Rubi’s family invested in the house and renovated it. So, in 2017, Ruby was happy to learn that she was going to be raising her first child in that house too. That same winter, however, two strangers knocked on her door.
Well, initially, it all started, when I was pregnant, I had a high-risk pregnancy, so I was just at home. I couldn’t be at work, I couldn’t be anywhere. And two teenagers from high school came. And they asked, if they could get some samples of the soil. Like … I didn’t really think much of it.
The two young individuals took samples of Ruby’s front yard, the side of the house, and the backyard.
Yeah, they just took the soil and they left. And I didn’t hear back from them for a couple months. And once they came back, they came back with the results.
Rubi found out that her backyard had doubled the amount of lead that is considered safe for children.
And I started getting concerned because by that time I had already had my baby. And I was just concerned how it affects little kids more than it affects adults.
Ruby wondered what was causing the lead in the environment around her house. After she got the results of the soil samples, she got help to test the paint in her house for traces of lead. There is a simple test that you can get at Home Depot, you scrape a little bit of paint onto a tube, and the liquid inside turns pink or red depending on how much lead it detects. Ruby tested her garage paint and the liquid turned hot pink, almost red. But she was not sure that that alone could explain why the backyard was so toxic. She wondered, instead, if the factories that operated a few blocks from her house had something to do with it.
I actually was talking to my sister that she decided to work at one of the factories here. As soon as you go in, it tells you that they have chemicals that produce cancer. You have to sign a waiver, like a life waiver I guess, for you to authorize your exposure when you work there. But a lot of people from around here, like in my street, they work there. They basically hire anybody. So, whenever anybody needs work they go to that factory.
So, after Ruby received the soil analysis, she wanted to know more and get involved with the issue of lead in Santa Ana. She found out that the study was not part of a survey conducted by the EPA, nor the city, nor the county. It was actually the work of two local organizations: OCEJ, which stands for Orange County Environmental Justice, and Jovenes Cultivando Cambios. The two organizations had partnered with the University of California-Irvine to conduct a study of the soil in Santa Ana. So, Ruby started attending meetings with OCEJ and also thinking about doing outreach to other members in her community. Because, as you can probably guess, she was not the only resident whose house showed alarming concentrations of lead in the soil. It turns out that half of the 1500 samples taken surpassed 80 parts per million, which is the highest limit that is considered safe, particularly for children.
So, that was my main concern. And that’s why I decided to keep up with the meetings and try to see what exactly we can do to improve the situation of how much we are exposed to it.
I asked Ruby if she had heard about lead in the environment before OCEJ and UCI performed the study.
No, I had never heard of anything. The only thing I remember hearing about was there being lead in the candy, like the Mexican candy, when I was younger, and to avoid it, but that was basically it. They just told us lead is really bad, it messes with your development, so just avoid Mexican candy.
And this is the part that is really puzzling. There is a dangerous contaminant out there, in the city’s soil, where children play, and the emphasis continues to be on nutritional habits and household objects as the main sources of lead poisoning. When you look at the educational material prepared by the state’s lead prevention branch, you mainly get messages like “avoid imported candies and spices,” “do not use artisanal pottery,” “beware of lead pipes and peeling paint.” These brochures are placing so much burden on residents and parents to prevent lead poisoning. They say things like “remove your work clothes” and “wash your kid’s hands.” These actions may prevent some degree of poisoning and certain foods may have contributed to the high levels of lead in blood. But that is not the end of the story. Lead is an epidemic that has been ravaging communities of color across the country and the world for 100 years. The reasons why it was and continues to be so rampant of an issue did not hinge upon the individual choices of parents or homeowners. The story of lead in our environment is a story about capitalism, the politics of science, and the subtle and overt workings of environmental racism.
My name is **, I’m a historian, and this is Air Metal and Earth. Stay tuned.
Lead poses a real danger, particularly for children. A child with high levels of lead in blood (and that is more than five micrograms per deciliter) can show physical symptoms of lead poisoning, like weight loss, fatigue, vomiting, etc. But kids with medium to low levels of lead in blood can also suffer severe consequences. Lead can generate cognitive deficits, behavioral issues and educational delays. As one study found, one in five cases of attention deficit disorder may be linked to lead poisoning. The science agrees: lead in the body of children, even if found in small amounts, can have devastating long-term consequences.
You may have heard of a recent lead crisis in one of America’s cities.
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Flint tap water was laced with dangerous levels of lead … who will pay the price or will anyone pay the price for the water catastrophe in Flint, Michigan? … water contaminated with lead after switching to river water, ultimately, poisoning people.
Flint received a lot of news coverage and that is understandable. It was a devastating and shameful crisis. But the issue of lead poisoning has been for decades rampant across the US. In the late 1990s, a study by the EPA determined that 12 million children were exposed to 10 million metric tons of lead in outdoor environments.
Historically, lead has disproportionately affected communities of color. Between 1987 and 2001, for example, 80% of children with high levels of lead in blood were children of color – 60% of them being black. As we will see later in these series, communities of color have been forced to live in polluted environments and given few alternatives to escape them. In addition, few resources are allocated to neighborhoods of color to clean living and working environments.
So, this is why organizations like OCEJ are getting involved with the issue of lead contamination. They argue that lead poisoning among children of color is a form of environmental racism.
And the reason for this is that you see that there are higher concentrations of soil-lead in communities that are higher proportion Latino, that are younger, that are lower income, and less college educated. So that happens to be the communities that we work with.
This is Enrique Valencia, former director of OCEJ.
And you know, this is for places where children play. And part of the issues that we later found out is that the standard of safety changes with the jurisdiction that’s actually setting those standards. So, the state in this case has a stricter standard than the federal level. The irony is that the federal level has a stricter standard for wildlife than children play areas. You know, I love wildlife, and I want them to be protected, but there’s something to be said when there is a stricter standard for wildlife than for actual children.
I looked this up and yes, while the EPA set the standard for wildlife mammals at 56 parts per million, the National limit for the areas where children play is 400 parts per million and 1200 parts per million for the remainder of the yard.
It’s quite a concerning issue that isn’t being paid attention to and, you know, when we looked at the City of Santa Ana, and we looked at the city charter, there was virtually no mention of any policy to address environmental lead. And there were similar observations when you look at state policy, even federal policy. So, it’s quite a deficit when you look at what our government governing authority should be doing to address this issue. And frankly, they are not doing enough.
The California State Auditor agrees with Enrique that the state is failing at dealing with this issue. In January 2020, the auditor’s report said that California state agencies were not ensuring adequate lead testing for children in the state. Not even kids enrolled in California’s Medicaid program are being properly tested. Lower income communities, arguably the most vulnerable to lead poisoning, are severely undertested.
It is quite astonishing, actually, that lead tests are not a routine procedure. I remember a conversation when I was at the pediatrician’s office. Since our apartment was built in the 1970s, I asked the doctor whether I should be worried about lead. The doctor said that it would not hurt to check but that, generally, renovated houses have safe materials now. But then I thought about the kind of families that my doctor’s practice was servicing, mainly wealthy families from Irvine or Newport Beach. Perhaps those houses are lead free, but not all houses in Orange County. I pressed a little and I mentioned that children in Santa Ana had been showing high levels of lead in blood. He said that, if I wanted, I could have my son tested. All I needed to do is to go to a private lab, ask for the test, and my insurance would pick up the bill. But what if I do not have insurance? Or what if I do not care to ask the doctor for a test in the first place?
The lack of universal testing is alarming. But what is even more perverse is that the entire system of detection is using kids as canaries in a coal mine. State and county agencies are not creating maps of lead hazards and adopting preventive strategies to address them. Instead, they rely on data about lead in the blood of children to get a pulse on the issue. And this is obviously problematic for several reasons. First, this implies that kids have to get poisoned first, and only after that their cases turn into state statistics. Second, the CDC and state level agencies are primarily taking note of severe cases of lead poisoning and ignoring low and medium levels. Finally, our public systems seem to be geared towards detecting and treating individual cases of children that are already poisoned and they are not doing enough to measure the lead in the environment, in our soil in our water, so as to get to the root causes, clean those hazards, and do preventive work.
Actually, it was not until an independent reporter took up the task of measuring the lead in Santa Ana soil that we knew about this problem.
I was actually working on another project on undocumented minors in the juvenile justice system here in California. And as I was doing interviews with the mothers of these young boys, I kept hearing the same sort of narrative from them in that their sons, one had ADHD, and they had problems focusing in class. And I just kept hearing these similarities in the behavior of the boys and as I was working on that project I serendipitously came across this piece on Mother Jones, talking about lead exposure. And that sort of opened my eyes to the question of what environment means.
In 2017, Yvette Cabrera, a reporter working for Think Progress at the time, walked the streets of Santa Ana with a portable XRF machine and began taking measurements of lead in the soil. Here’s the Yvette.
A lot of the times I remember it was hot. And you know, I’m walking along the street and introducing myself to strangers and they’re like “who are you? Coming out of nowhere with your backpack.”
She focused on areas where children play such as public spaces, parks and abandoned plots, but she also asked permission and measured lead in people’s front yards.
It was tough sometimes getting people to allow me to test in their yards because some of the residents were renting and they feared rocking the boat. And, you know, being evicted from their apartment or their home. And other people were like “yes, please, test my yard.” Once they learned what I was doing, there was support from a lot of residents like that because they want to know, they want to protect their children.
Yvette’s readings showed that a large portion of the city was showing unsafe concentrations of lead. City officials did not respond to Yvette’s investigation in any significant way, but for community activists in Santa Ana, this was a starting point.
OCEJ, a very young organization at the time, decided to take on the problem of lead contamination in Santa Ana, not as a series of individual cases, but as an environmental justice issue. Since the word in Spanish for lead is “plomo”, OCEJ call their campaign the “Plo-No project.” It’s goal: a lead-free Santa Ana. A core strategy: collecting and analyzing reliable data to force authorities to take action.
Yet, OCEJ is not going about data collection in a conventional, let’s say, technocratic way. An important mission for OCEJ was (and still is) to empower community members to conduct their own environmental testing.
So, making sure that we are training community members to perform things like gathering soil samples and interpreting data. You know, again, this is about leadership development and capacity building. So, we don’t want the knowledge to be consolidated within the minds of skilled technicians. Rather, we really want to break this paradigm of who holds the scale and who actually is generating this meaning. And we want community members, and youth specifically, to be the ones leading that work.
And they coupled this community science approach with partnerships with experts and scholars in the field of Public Health, pollution, and Environmental Science. Or as Enrique put it …
A community science organizing model, which leverages peer reviewed academic data. And the reason for that is we don’t want public officials to say, well, you gathered environmental data, but you are just a bunch of community members, we need experts, which often happens, right? Fortunately, we are able to work with academics who really understand the value of community academic partnerships, and that’s been a huge boost to us. OCEJ partnered with a youth cooperative called Jovenes Cultivando Cambios, who work on issues of food sovereignty in Santa Ana, and also with faculty and students at UC Irvine Public Health, most notably Alana Lebron, who is a professor, and also Jun Wu.
For the Plo-No Project, OCEJ partnered with the University of California-Irvine, where a group of scientists analyzed the data collected by volunteers on the ground. Each soil sample (and there were 1500 of them) had a specific geolocation and it registered concentration levels for lead and several other metals. As a result, the Plo-No project was able to produce maps of the city of Santa Ana, showing where the most and least polluted areas were. Imagine a heat map with a gradient of orange and red showing hotspots where that specific metal is most concentrated.
It took a couple years to be able to get the data and to make meaning of the data. But we’re at a point now where we know that there are hotspots in Santa Ana, most notably in the older part of Santa Ana and downtown. That’s where you see higher concentrations of lead. And, you know, overall, the levels of lead range from 12 parts per million to just under 2400 parts per million. So again, 2400 parts per million, I’m going to say that again because that’s a staggering number.
Experts in childhood development say that there are no safe levels of lead in the soil for children. But to give some perspective, entities like the California Office of environmental hazard assessments have placed their standard at 80 parts per million. So, if you go by that standard, almost half of the soil samples showed unsafe concentrations of lead, ranging from 80 to 2600 parts per million. The hotspots that Enrique mentioned are showing 30 times the lead concentrations that are considered safe.
The analysis done by the UCI team has also shown that lead in Santa Ana is having a disproportionate effect on its most vulnerable members. Here’s Shahir Masri, air-pollution specialist.
So, for instance, if we looked at census tracks with an average median household income below $50,000 per year, we found around five times higher soil lead concentrations in the soil of those census tracts compared to census tract with a median household income above $100,000 a year. So, this is an enormous gap and of potential exposure to individuals living in these respective census tracts, again, falling along economic lines. And we saw a very similar pattern emerge when we looked at other demographic variables: more residents without health coverage, more renter occupied housing units, higher fraction of Latino Hispanic residents, higher fraction of immigrant residents, higher fraction of residents speaking limited or no English.
The residents that are the most impacted by soil-lead are also the ones worst positioned to afford or to demand a solution. But even if lead was the primary concern of the study, the soil samples produced other maps showing the distribution of other metals.
We also looked at arsenic. Now arsenic is another very deleterious chemical that we measure in the soil and you can measure it in the food and other parts of the environment. But the story of arsenic is a little bit different than that of lead. And one thing that I can say is that we do tend to see the higher arsenic levels to be near the roadways. But really, there’s a lot more that we have to uncover with this next study, which is looking at not only arsenic, but chromium, nickel, copper, cadmium, zinc, and manganese. It’s interesting as you look at these different elements, the patterning is similar in some cases, and quite different in other cases. And of course, that’s going to get back to the sources, you know, what are the contributors to heavy metals in the environment.
The Plo-No campaign finally has the proof that a large portion of the city soil is polluted with lead to an extent that is unsafe for children. But a question naturally arises, where did all this lead come from? And also, how can we explain that lower income Latinx communities have suffered the most from this burden? How do we get here? These are the central questions of this audio series. Together, we will follow researchers and activists working on the PloNo campaign as they try to unearth the root-causes of soil contamination in Santa Ana and enact change. We will look at old maps and dive into the history of the town and the history of lead. One question will be guiding our request, and that is who is responsible for this environmental crisis. In our upcoming episodes, we will talk about automobiles, the growth of California suburbs and the dark history of gasoline. We will travel to the famous Orange County citrus groves and wonder where the pesticides had something to do with all of this. But first, let’s talk about the history of housing, redlining, and lead paint. That is next in Air Metal and Earth.
My name is Juan Rubio and I’m one of the historians in the UCI-PloNo project. This episode was produced by me with support from the National Science Foundation and the Ridge 2 Reef program at UCI. Views and opinions my own. Help with editing and writing came from Activate to Captivate. Original reporting on the lead crisis in Santa Ana was done by the Yvette Cabrera. Music was from Purple Planet, visit www.purple-planet.com. Thank you to Enrique Valencia, Keila Villegas, and the other OCEJ members for their testimonies. For more information on metal contamination in California and the rest of the country visit historianrubio.com/airmetalandearth.
I leave you now with the band Weapons of Mass Creation and their song “Manzana Venenosa” (or poisoned apple). They are from Santa Ana’s neighboring city of Anaheim, so they’re local, but they’re sounding strong, everywhere. Enjoy.