Addressing Environmental Health Disparities in Southern California’s Black Communities

Oil refinery

Aug. 20, 2021 - Not far from UCI, some of the nation’s unhealthiest air blankets neighborhoods. One of the world’s busiest international airports, shipping ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles and their associated diesel truck traffic, industrial sites and oil refineries contribute to pollution not just in the air, but in the soil and water, as well. Residents in those communities are at higher risk of asthma, cancer and cardiovascular disease associated with pollution, among other negative health impacts. And those residents are predominantly people of color.

A new faculty hiring initiative aims to promote environmental justice and health equity in Southern California’s Black communities. A proposal focused on environmental health disparities by researchers representing UCI’s Program in Public Health, School of Social Sciences, and The Henry Samueli School of Engineering was selected from 17 proposals for the UCI Black Thriving Initiative Faculty Cluster Hiring Program. As a result, UCI will recruit four new faculty members who study environmental health inequities from the perspective of different disciplines and the Office of Inclusive Excellence will provide $150,000 to support related events and programs over three years.

“The environmental health disparities proposal leverages UCI’s research, teaching and service mission to advance understanding about the Black experience, specifically the drivers of health and wellbeing that support Black communities,” says Doug Haynes, Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. “It is, in some sense, a form of mobilization; a whole university response to a national imperative to advance racial justice.”

Raising visibility

UCI, which aspires to be a national leader and global model of inclusive excellence, has been federally designated as both a Hispanic-serving institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-serving institution. In the wake of the nationwide outcry for social justice following the murder of George Floyd, the campus launched the Black Thriving Initiative in August 2020. The goal is to create a culture at UCI in which Black people thrive, in part by linking UCI’s success with that of Black communities on and off campus.

“In Southern California, Black communities are often overlooked because they are not the majority minority,” says Verónica Vieira, interim chair and professor of environmental and occupational health in the Program in Public Health, and the lead proposer for the new hiring initiative in environmental health disparities. “But, in some respects, that creates even more complex social issues for the local communities, in a nation that already has a lot of entrenched and historic issues.”

While just 2 percent of Orange County’s population is Black compared to 9 percent in Los Angeles, UCI has made strides toward greater inclusivity. Between 2009 and 2019, the proportion of Black faculty at UCI doubled to nearly 4 percent, and the proportion of Black graduate students doubled to 4 percent. The proportion of Black undergraduates increased from 2 percent to 3 percent in the same period.

By hiring additional faculty, UCI seeks to build on existing research strengths focused on other marginalized populations, while expanding to include experts focused on how environmental health disparities shape Black communities’ daily experience. The research and outreach will also integrate the expertise and lived experiences of residents of the affected Southern California neighborhoods.

“Communities like Compton and Long Beach, for example, have long been known to be disproportionately impacted by environmental contamination,” says Vieira, who studies health effects of both air and water pollution. “There’s already a lot of community energy there, and we hope we can support that by providing knowledge, offering solutions, figuring out who in power is accountable, and whether they are paying attention.”

Multi-disciplinary collaboration

Southern California is not unique. From Flint, Michigan’s water supply to North Carolina’s hog farms, environmental pollution disproportionately impacts health in communities that have less wealth and wield less political clout than their neighbors. Solving these environmental problems tends to be far more complex than creating them in the first place. That’s why the proposal brings together public health experts, engineers, and social scientists.

“We’ve long recognized the challenges of our time are not going to be solved by one sector or discipline; they require multidisciplinary, coordinated approaches,” says Alana LeBrón, assistant professor of health, society and behavior and of Chicano/Latino studies, who contributed to the proposal. “In my own work, we often turn to the social sciences to help us make meaning of community experiences and to demonstrate the best methodological approaches to addressing, understanding and evaluating problems.”

LeBrón has worked with community organizations in Santa Ana to study unhealthy levels of lead in the soil, which disproportionately impacts Latinx communities. The cluster hire initiative will bring two new faculty to the Program in Public Health — which is proposed to become the School of Population and Public Health. One of the new faculty will work with LeBrón and colleagues in the Department of Health, Society and Behavior to engage the community in studies, translate findings to the general public, and help residents and stakeholders take action to support both their environment and health. The other will be in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, working closely with Vieira and colleagues to investigate the dual effects of environmental exposures and social stressors in Black communities.

Sunny Jiang, professor and chair of civil and environmental engineering, studies water quality, and has experience working with impoverished communities in the U.S. Virgin Islands after hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The new faculty member recruited to her department will specialize in environmental quality and allocation of resources such as water in Black communities.

“Often, disparities in health are hiding behind infrastructure issues,” Jiang says. “Engineering offers a multi-faceted approach that can range from sensors for detecting problems to modeling alternatives, and ultimately offering cost-effective solutions to fix the problem and help communities thrive.”

Jiang points out that addressing infrastructure problems, such as the ones that contributed to the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply, require social action and political willpower. Social scientists play a critical role there.

Anthropology professor Kim Fortun, who has led research in Louisiana and Texas, as well as India and Taiwan, will help recruit a new anthropologist to the department, with expertise in Black experiences in environmentally stressed communities, as well as their structural underpinnings.

“One of my jobs as a social scientist is to characterize a historical moment in which we are trying to understand problems,” Fortun says. “We are in a hugely important moment because the Biden administration has committed to addressing environmental injustice and working on health disparities. I would argue huge capacity-building needs to be done.”

Capacity building

The recruitment of four new faculty is just the beginning of UCI’s work to understand and address environmental health disparities in Black communities. Current faculty who contributed to the proposal are already scoping out a mission and vision for a Center for Environmental Health Disparities Research, assembling a community advisory board, and planning an event for next year to start a broader conversation with the community.

“We need to bring community-based organizations and academic researchers together to discuss what role universities can play, and to hear from those individuals what they need from us,” says Fortun.

Researchers in the cluster will also attract graduate students who are interested in social justice around environmental concerns. And those new faculty and graduate students will develop undergraduate seminars on special topics related to environmental health disparities.

Fortun, who runs environmental justice-focused undergraduate research projects in collaboration with other universities, says the center will leverage UCI’s existing connections with California Community Colleges, California State University, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to expand both research and educational capacity on the topic.

“We want to prepare students to build out whole new domains that advance environmental health justice, from renewable energy to green chemistry. That will take deep coordination between research, policy, and the people in the community who are most impacted,” says Fortun. “Ultimately, this is about being brave enough to train students in research and methods that enable them to do the type of work that we cannot even imagine yet.”

– Christine Byrd