In California’s San Joaquin Valley, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program, and others saw local organizations responding to the region’s environmental health challenges.
The valley, also known as the Central Valley, was the setting of Birnbaum’s latest community tour and workshop. The visit followed a meeting of the NIEHS-funded Environmental Health Core Centers at the University of California at Davis (UCD) (see sidebar).
Birnbaum regularly holds community tours and forums around the country to hear about local environmental health issues from residents and community organizations, with an emphasis on the role of scientific research in addressing those issues.
The valley’s complex concerns
The UCD core center’s Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee helped plan a road trip to Stockton and Fresno that offered vivid illustrations of complex environmental health concerns and responses by community organizations.
The nearly 30-member tour group included Birnbaum and others from NIEHS; researchers and faculty from the UCD core center; members of the UCD Community Engagement Core; and representatives of California’s state government and community organizations.
Tour leaders explained that the region is home to large-scale agriculture, family farms, oil and gas drilling, and other industries. More people than ever before live in the valley, as housing prices soar in more densely developed parts of the state such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Air quality is affected by agricultural and industrial activities, and by pollution that blows inland from coastal cities. Groundwater in some areas contains naturally occurring compounds, such as benzene and arsenic. Where contamination has occurred, pesticides and industrial chemicals may be present.
The first stop was in South Stockton, at Fathers and Families of San Joaquin (FFSJ). The group addresses employment disparities, poverty, environmental health disparities, and other critical problems.
“We’re transforming South Stockton so we’re not the place of last resort but a community of first choice,” said FFSJ Executive Director Sammy Nunez. “Our children are sacred, and they’re breathing toxic air. Our children are blessed, and they’re drinking contaminated water.”
Birnbaum’s visit to Stockton was covered by the local news site Recordnet.com, in an article written by Joe Goldeen. “What Birnbaum took from the presentation was ‘the power of the people and the love’,” Goldeen reported.
“You have to be grounded in love to give people the ability to heal themselves,” Birnbaum said. “It can't come from the outside.”
One FFSJ project is a garden called Healing Roots, where newly planted trees offer symbols of strength and hope. “At some time [in the future] we'll come here … and this will be a beautiful oasis," Birnbaum said.
Fire along the freeway
En route to Fresno, the group passed a roadside fire, underscoring the air quality impact of wildfires. “I’ve done 22 community forums with the director,” said John Schelp, NIEHS community outreach coordinator.
“Driving past roadside fires in the San Joaquin Valley was one of the worst challenges my lungs have had,” he added. Members of the tour group shared their hotel with firefighters working in the Yosemite Valley.
A meeting of the minds
Ryan Jensen, from the Community Water Center, spoke about water quality, noting that the severe drought has led to heavy reliance on diminishing groundwater supplies. “Pumping water out of the aquifer draws the arsenic out of the pores,” he said. Groundwater provides the drinking and household water for residents of the Central Valley’s extensive rural areas.
Pesticide exposure was also raised at the meeting. “We’re not just talking about workers’ health, we’re talking about our families’ health,” said Fernando Serrano, Ph.D., from the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety.
Agents of change
The visitors learned how community groups are responding. Residents in one area convinced farmers of the strawberry fields surrounding their school to switch to organic methods, eliminating pesticide use.
UCD Core Center Director Irva Hertz-Piccioto, Ph.D., spoke of the value to researchers of getting out of the lab. “I feel like I’ve learned more in the last hour than in the last year,” she said. Her thoughts were echoed by Claudia Thompson, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Population Health Branch. “It’s very important to see this up close,” she said.
Visitors and residents alike saw cause for hope. “We have a power triangle in this room — academics, advocates, and agencies all together,” said Jonathan London, Ph.D., from the UCD Community Engagement Core. “We’re here in the heart and brain trust of people working on environmental justice in the valley.”