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Making Health Happen in South L.A.

Jordan Downs Housing Project is adjacent to a 21-acre brownfield

This is part of a series exploring environmental and health issues in South Los Angeles, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.
On a particularly warm Saturday in the middle of August, South L.A. Assembly Member Reginald Jones Sawyer addressed the staff and members of several South L.A. organizations at a community conference held in West Adams. Scanning the crowd of residents and organizers, he said "this is the first time I have heard from my constituents about environmental issues." The Assemblyman spoke at the end of a day full of learning and networking, where residents participated in workshops designed to highlight how South L.A. organizations are working to find solutions to the staggering environmental health challenges facing the community.

We often read facts about our communities that seem alarming. But many of us live and breathe these facts on a daily basis. The California EPA's pollution screening tool identifies over 54% of census tracts in L.A. county in the top 20% most polluted in the state, and 56% in the top 10% most polluted. South L.A. is among those communities that have multiple census tracts that fall into the 10% most polluted category. So what does this mean for the people who live there? It means wondering if that oil pump jack down the street is causing our frequent bloody noses. It means that our supposed safest and healthiest places -- our homes -- are often too close to polluting freeways. It means that our older apartment buildings, the only ones that we can afford, are riddled with mold, leaky pipes and pest infestations. For the residents of South L.A. and those who attended the community conference, it means that the places where we live, work, play, study, and worship do not support our health.

Oil extraction site in South L.A.
Oil extraction site in South L.A.

The conference organizers -- Physicians for Social Responsibility-L.A. (PSR-LA), Black Women for Wellness (BWW), Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN), Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, and Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) -- are all deeply rooted in South L.A. and have for decades tackled health issues facing the community. We are all part of South Los Angeles Building Healthy Communities (SLA BHC) -- an innovative initiative of the California Endowment that aims to better understand the link between the environment and health, while simultaneously working towards finding solutions to the longstanding health disparities.

South L.A. residents are increasingly vulnerable to a number of negative health outcomes due to high levels of pollution from traffic emissions (about 9% of its population live within 500 feet of a major truck route), and oil extraction sites in close proximity to homes, schools, parks, and healthcare facilities. PSR-LA and Esperanza were instrumental in bringing awareness to the health impacts of a local oil extraction site, by elevating the stories of local residents experiencing headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, and dizziness. As the science on oil extraction catches up, we now have a better understanding of how the chemicals used in oil well stimulation impact air quality, which consequently causes a range of health-related effects to those living nearby. PSR-LA, Esperanza, SAJE and many other organizations are now advocating for a prohibition of all oil extraction in Los Angeles. We are also working hard to include prohibition language in the updated Health Chapter in the General Plan, as well as the South and Southeast Los Angeles Community Plans.

In addition to the health effects of air toxics, South L.A. residents also have to deal with a legacy of soil and groundwater contamination due to industrialization. When certain industries move, the chemicals they used remain behind on the land. In some cases, residential homes are built on top of highly contaminated land, known as brownfields. Brownfields are severely polluted lands that require comprehensive clean-up plans to remove hazardous contaminants. At the Jordan Downs Housing Projects in Watts an adjacent 21-acre brownfield has been marked for redevelopment, and community advocates such as LACAN and the L.A. Human Right to Housing Collective are pushing for expanded environmental testing and a thorough clean-up of the site. The land was previously used as a steel mill and truck repair facility, and the soil is polluted with lead, arsenic, oil, and other cancer-causing chemicals. If this site is not cleaned up properly it will leave current residents, workers, and any future residents in harms way.

Safe Cleaning Products
Safe Cleaning Products

Often residents have little control over the built environment. And inside the home, there are additional toxics in our cleaning and personal care products, whether it's the pesticides used to manage pests, or the harsh cleaning products used to keep our aging homes clean. The connection is not always made between the pollution outside and toxic products we use in our own homes, which add to our cumulative pollution burden. One of the workshops at the conference focused on the health risks posed by the chemicals in these products and how we can make our own safer products. Similarly, our personal care and hair care products may be impacting the reproductive health of men and women. BWW has conducted community-based research on the chemicals and practices of black hair care professionals, touching on the potential health impacts of the products use to straighten, tame, and control our curly and kinky hair. Their work to promote the development of safer hair care practices reminds us that for women of color, even our hair is politicized.

At the end of the day at the conference, Pete White of LACAN asked Assemblymember Jones Sawyer how organizations and residents can get involved in finding solutions to the environmental health challenges facing their communities. The Assemblymember encouraged residents to write letters and come up to Sacramento and speak to their elected officials. He stressed the importance of understanding the issues, organizing your community and making your voices heard. This is what our organizations are doing in South L.A. to bring about change: we are educating and mobilizing our members and bringing their voices to decision makers so that we ensure that health happens in South L.A.

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