Case Studies in Community-based Science

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These models show how communities worked in partnership with researchers and allies to document environmental exposures, and support campaigns. These models show how communities worked in partnership with researchers and allies to document environmental exposures, and support campaigns.

Ditching Diesel

Community-driven research reduces pollution in West Oakland

Diesel exhaust—the black smoke emitted by buses, trucks, trains and ships—is the number one toxic air pollutant in California. Chemicals in diesel pollution can cause cancer, harm the reproductive system, and aggravate or cause asthma. New research shows that West Oakland, California, a neighborhood surrounded by freeways and bordered by the Port of Oakland, suffers from far more than its fair share of this toxic pollution. But residents, community organizations and the city have uncovered a host of practical solutions that can help clean up West Oakland’s pollution and improve the health of residents as well as the local economy.

West Oakland is a small neighborhood of 24,000 residents on the shores of the San Francisco Bay. More than 60 percent of the residents are African American and 89 percent are people of color, according to the 2000 Census. West Oakland is the poorest neighborhood in the Bay Area, where 55 percent of the households earn less than $25,000 per year. In addition to its rich African-American history, West Oakland has growing Latino (16 percent) and Asian (9 percent) populations.

Three freeways, the Port of Oakland, and the Oakland Army Base border the neighborhood. According to the City of Oakland, more than 20 truck-related businesses operate in the neighborhood. Every day, thousands of diesel trucks travel through West Oakland to drop off and pick up containers from docked ships at the Port, which is the fourth busiest in the nation. The Port estimates that its planned expansion will almost double the amount of truck traffic in the area—generating 22,000 truck trips per day by 2010. All told, there’s a lot of truck traffic in this small community, which contributes to the diesel pollution and dirty air.

Not surprisingly, diesel pollution was one of the top environmental concerns identified by residents and community organizations through the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WO EIP). The WO EIP began as a partnership between the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based non-profit research organization, and the 7th St./McClymonds Corridor Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, a community-based organization. Pacific Institute chose West Oakland as the pilot site for a Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project because of the environmental issues faced by the community, the history of community activism, and the opportunity to support community revitalization efforts facilitated by the 7th St. Neighborhood Improvement Initiative. The WO EIP is now a fully community-run initiative based at the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization (CWOR).

The Project
From its inception, the project was designed to support a community-driven process. The WO EIP established a committee of neighborhood residents who served as the community “conscience” of the project. Through a series of meetings in 2000, the WO EIP sought to define the term “environment” in the context of West Oakland; identify environmental issues in the community; select indicators that community members wanted to measure and track; and determine how such information would be incorporated into current advocacy, policy, education and organizing work.

By July 2000, the WO EIP Committee had agreed on a core set of indicators. Indicators convey information about the quality of life in a community: its economic vitality, the strength of social institutions, the well-being of residents, and the state of the environment. But indicators are more than just a measurement tool: they reflect the values of those who select them. The indicators concerning residents most included truck traffic, indoor and outdoor air quality, and asthma. (See WO EIP Indicators final report at

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With help from foundation and agency funders, West Oakland residents and organizations designed and conducted their own neighborhood study of diesel trucks in partnership with the Pacific Institute. Over the course of five WO EIP meetings, committee members identified questions that needed to be answered in a Diesel Truck Study: where and when trucks were traveling and needed to be monitored; a list of potential technical assistance contractors; and previous diesel studies. They also discussed how the information could be disseminated to community audiences and used to generate change.

After a series of more meetings, the coalition decided to conduct three studies: a truck count on residential streets in West Oakland and a truck idling study; an inventory of diesel emissions in the community; and an indoor air monitoring study. Ten West Oakland residents were hired and trained to conduct truck counts on selected neighborhood streets. Other residents volunteered to measure levels of pollution in their homes with a specialized instrument designed to measure diesel soot. This was then compared to levels of diesel soot in homes in another part of Oakland. The results we found through these studies and existing sources, were shocking (all study methodologies and results are available at They include:

  • 11-2 Ditching Diesel_2 Average diesel emissions per square mile in West Oakland are more than 90 times greater than average emissions for the rest of California. There’s also seven times more diesel exhaust per person in West Oakland than in Alameda County as a whole. The toxic diesel soot emitted in West Oakland affects Californians from West Oakland to Fresno, but people in West Oakland bear the brunt of the exposure.
  • Western Oakland residents breathe air with diesel particulate levels that are five times greater than what residents breathe in other parts of Oakland. Due to diesel particulate exposure, West Oakland residents may have an increased lifetime risk of one extra cancer case for every thousand residents. This is more than five times the cancer risk that residents in other parts of Oakland face from diesel pollution.
  • Hundreds of trucks travel on residential streets in West Oakland every day, some illegally. Some trucks were spotted on streets that prohibited trucks weighing more than four and a half tons. We also learned that trucks idle outside port terminal gates an estimated combined 280 hours per day. Through a survey of truckers, we conservatively estimated that each truck spends about 1.5 hours per trip idling or crawling to deliver or pick-up a container.
  • Exposure to diesel causes cancer, and may increase the risk of asthma, heart disease and premature death. Asthma is epidemic in West Oakland: children here are seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than the average child in the state of California. Recent studies have shown that diesel exhaust does not only make asthma worse, but it may actually cause asthma.

From Study to Solutions
While our studies confirmed what many residents already knew—that West Oakland faces a disproportionate burden of environmental and health threats from diesel pollution—we also found that there were many opportunities to reduce diesel pollution and truck impacts in West Oakland. Solutions include: stepped up enforcement of illegal truck traffic; moving truck-related businesses away from residential areas and on to land owned by the Port and Army Base; the installation of electrical hook-ups so trucks waiting to enter the Port don't idle; financial incentives to get the dirtiest trucks off the road; and the creation of new truck routes with signs and other outreach to ensure that drivers know the right route. The final report of our work, “Clearing the Air: Reducing Diesel Pollution in West Oakland,” has a detailed list of these solutions (

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Since the release of the report, we’ve made progress in putting these solutions in place. We've held a series of meetings with City of Oakland traffic engineers to designate a truck route away from neighborhood streets. And, we’ve been working with the City of Oakland and the Port of Oakland to move truck-related businesses out of West Oakland and on to the Army Base site. Through ongoing meetings with the director of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, we obtained commitments to put Air District resources and staff behind the effort to reduce diesel pollution in highly polluted communities such as West Oakland.

We were also able to help advocate for the allocation of $1.5 million in Air District funds to the Port of Oakland, with community oversight and input into how the money would be spent. And the WO EIP Committee recently signed a partnering agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to develop a collaborative process involving all stakeholders in implementing the diesel reduction solutions identified in the report.

We are excited and gratified that the collaborative, science-based approach we have pursued is starting to make a difference for the people of West Oakland. Our study has demonstrated the power of residents and community groups—armed with the information they need—to fight for environmental justice and clean air. It has also shown the importance of supportive partnerships between research organizations and community residents. But despite the progress, much more needs to be done: relief cannot come too quickly for those who are breathing dirty air, suffering from asthma, or living in polluted communities.

Meena Palaniappan directs the Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice Program at the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Oakland.

  1. According to the California Air Resources Board 2002 Almanac, the Health Risk estimate from diesel particulate matter (DPM) for California and for the San Francisco Bay Area Air Basin is almost 10 times higher than that for the other 9 toxic air contaminants (TACs) studied. Source: ARB. 2002. 2002 California Almanac of Emissions and Air Quality. Chapter 5: Toxic Air Contaminants, Air Quality and Health Risk. p.265.
  2. For more information on all sorts of health risks from diesel exhaust, see US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2002. Health Assessment for Diesel Exhaust. Office of Research Development. EPA/600/8-90/057F May 2002.
  3. Harding ESE. 2001. West Oakland Particulate Emissions Study, Oakland, California. Harding ESE Project No. 48168 005, Prepared for the City of Oakland Environmental Services Division. September 24, 2001. Novato, CA.
  4. Port of Oakland Department of Environmental Assessment and U.S. Department of the Navy. 1997. Disposal and Reuse of Fleet and Industrial Supply Center Oakland, Vision 2000 Maritime Development. Final Environmental Impact Statement / Environmental Impact Report. ACH # 96062010. San Bruno and Oakland, CA. p. J-4.3. This EIS / EIR estimates that of 22,210 truck trips in 2010 under the Reduced Harbor Fill Alternative, 14,219 will be over-the-road weekday truck trips and 7,992 will be to and from rail (intramodal).
  5. Pacific Institute and 7th Street McClymonds Corridor. 2002. Neighborhood Knowledge for Change: The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. Oakland, CA: Pacific Institute.
  6. Pandya et al. 2002. Diesel Exhaust and Asthma: Hypotheses and Molecular Mechanisms of Action. Environ Health Perspectives 110 (S1): 103–112. Also, extensive cohort studies with children in more and less polluted areas of Southern California showed that children living in areas with higher measured levels of NOx and particulate matter exhibited the highest incidences of new asthma cases (Kunzli et al. 2003. Breathless in Los Angeles: The Exhausting Search for Clean Air. American Journal of Public Health 93:1494–1499). Cupertino, CA.

Hogging the Land

Research and organizing put a halt to swine industry growth

In late 1991, Charles Tillery, Jr. of Tillery, North Carolina approached the community group, Concerned Citizens of Tillery’s (CCT), with news about a plan by the Halifax County Economic Development Corporation to bring industrial hog farming to Tillery. For Mr. Tillery, the only remaining descendent of the family that gave Tillery its name, the proposed development was cause for alarm. As he and CCT’s executive director Gary R. Grant began looking into the development, it became clear that it was not the type of hog farming to which farmers in the area were accustomed. Unlike the pasture or free-range farming that was typical in Tillery, industrial farming would concentrate thousands of animals in confined spaces and produce greater waste.

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Charles Tillery was also disturbed that the first industrial hog operation in the area was to be located only a half mile from his antebellum plantation home, which was registered on the North Carolina and Federal Registries of Historic Sites. To Gary Grant, a community leader who had brought together the two local African-American communities to oppose school closings, advocate for access to medical care, and end racist agricultural policies, the proposed development was yet another affront to low-income people of color. Because the threat of this new form of industrial agriculture was being marketed to local farmers as economic development—with no mention of environmental damage—the two men agreed that an interracial coalition would be needed to initiate a massive organizing and education campaign. CCT took the lead in that process.

After several informal meetings, residents began the organizing process and scheduled a larger community meeting. Once the community learned about the scope of the development, there was no question that it was not the kind of “economic development” they wanted. To challenge the hog industry, the community first conducted house-to-house interviews to establish data on the structure, age and depth of private family wells serving the community. They feared that the hog factories’ proposed “lagoon” waste disposal system would pollute the groundwater and the aquifers that supplied those wells. There were also pollution threats to the Conoconnara Creek, which zigzags through the community, and the Roanoke River, which borders much of the land owned by Blacks in the community.

Research and Environmental Racism
An anti-industrial hog farm coalition developed quickly. Working with the Halifax County health director, county commissioners and local farmers, the coalition celebrated its first success with the passage of county’s Intensive Livestock Ordinance in 1992, which required that the lagoons be set back specific distances from property lines, streams and individual wells. However, the hog industry was still expanding rapidly, and CCT recognized the potential of bringing together community organizations with traditional environmental groups that were concerned primarily with the pollution of surface water and the damage to rivers, coastal waters and wildlife. These groups, including the Sierra Club, Wildlife Federation, Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Defense, had the resources, expertise and political access not available to community groups—especially African-American organizations. CCT hoped these large organizations would help poor rural communities oppose the hog industry’s destructive impacts on the environment, health, independent farming, Black land ownership, local autonomy, and indeed, democracy itself in eastern North Carolina.

CCT convened the Hog Roundtable—the name given to the coalition of groups—in early 1993. Its purpose was to provide education on hog farms to unsuspecting communities, coordinate legislative rally days, and organize for a statewide effort to stop the rapid and massive growth of the hog industry. As members of the Hog Roundtable and other citizens attempted to convince local and state officials that the hog industry was harming the people and environment of eastern North Carolina, officials asked, “Where is the documentation?” Most scientific studies of impacts of industrial swine production had been conducted in Iowa and in parts of Europe, areas where industrial production methods had a longer history. CCT needed to begin data gathering for North Carolina in order to impact policy. To that end, Mary Lee Kerr, representing the Institute of Southern Studies at the Hog Roundtable, introduced Grant and CCT to Steve Wing, an epidemiologist in the School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill.

CCT worked with Wing to initiate research into the location and health impacts of industrial hog production. This research was driven by concerns of rural people living closest to the confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where thousands of hogs are crowded into metal buildings and the waste is flushed through slats and into cesspools before being sprayed on fields. The waste is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and pathogens, and contains residues of antibiotics and hormones used in the feed to promote growth. Bacteria resistant to antibiotics used in hog feed, some of which are also used in human medicine, have been identified in waste pits as well as in nearby ground and surface water. Additionally, neighbors of hog CAFOs were devastated by horrible odors that permeated even their clothes and furniture.

CCT and other community-based African-American organizations in eastern North Carolina observed that many hog CAFOs were located near Black schools, churches and neighborhoods. With the history of Warren County—the majority African-American community that gave birth to the environmental justice movement when it opposed a massive PCB landfill in the late 1970s—in mind, community groups charged the hog industry with environmental racism. However, their charges were ignored or rejected by white politicians, journalists and environmentalists on the grounds that community groups’ observations were anecdotal.

Consequently, CCT partnered with researchers from UNC to conduct more formal research. This community-academic partnership decided to link permit records and federal census data to document the racial and economic characteristics of neighborhoods with and without hog CAFOs. Findings were clear: hog CAFOs were almost 10 times more common in low-income and Black areas compared to higher income areas with few Blacks, even considering statistical adjustment for rural location. Racial and economic disparities were greater for the corporateowned and operated CAFOs than for the dwindling number of independent operations. Furthermore, the research showed that hog CAFOs were predominantly located in areas where residents depend on groundwater for drinking.

Next, the research team conducted a rural health survey to address concerns of local residents who reported respiratory, gastrointestinal and other symptoms associated with foul odors from hog CAFOs. Community consultants introduced trained interviewers to residents in three neighborhoods, one with a hog CAFO, one with a dairy, and one with no industrial livestock. Participants were asked about a range of symptoms they had experienced in the last six months, as well as about their quality of life. Results showed that residents within two miles of the hog operation reported more headaches, mucous membrane irritation, coughing and nausea than residents in the other two communities. Reports of other miscellaneous health problems, such as backache and hearing loss, were similar in the three areas, suggesting that hog CAFO neighbors were not over-reporting symptoms.

Hope for Sustainable Hog Farming
The studies conducted by CCT and UNC-Chapel Hill focused on concerns of people whose homes, quality of life, health, jobs, property values and communities are most directly impacted by industrial hog production. But local issues were of less interest to members of the Hog Roundtable who lived in urban areas and were more concerned with the industry’s impacts on recreation, wildlife and water quality in areas far downstream from hog CAFOs communities. The Roundtable’s ability to act as an effective agent of change was diminished by differences in perspective between rural community members and mainstream environmental groups and lobbyists who were more willing to make compromises with politicians affiliated with the hog industry. Furthermore, white groups were uncomfortable addressing the issues of environmental racism and worker rights raised by African-American members of the Roundtable. Black members argued that environmental and occupational impacts of industrial hog production were examples of race and class exploitation that undermine the well being of Southern rural workers and people of color at the expense of wealthy whites in the South and other regions.

The efforts of CCT and the Hog Roundtable were part of a wave of public opposition to the hog industry in North Carolina that led to a statewide moratorium on hog factory construction in 1997, which is still in force. However, after some member organizations participated in an agreement between Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest hog producer, and the state attorney general to conduct research into alternative waste management technology, the Hog Roundtable ceased to meet regularly. Many community organizations considered the agreement to be a sellout since the agreement did not promise to make any changes unless the industry found them to be “economically feasible.”

The Hog Roundtable contributed to the broader movement to address impacts of industrial hog production in North Carolina, including efforts to stop new slaughterhouses; impose a moratorium on construction and expansion of hog CAFOs; and create opportunities for sustainable hog farming. Despite its ultimate demise, the Roundtable was a promising effort to unite environmental, civil rights, and economic justice organizations across race, class and regional divisions. It provided a powerful model and hope for a movement toward a more just and sustainable future.

Gary R Grant is executive director of Concerned Citizens of Tillery, a community-based organization whose purpose is to promote cultural awareness and improve the social, economic and educational welfare of the citizens in the community through self-development.

Steve Wing is on the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. He focuses on environmental and occupational epidemiology.

Nuclear Testing and Native Peoples

Tribal research uncovers unexpected exposures

The Native Community Action Council (NCAC) is made up of 15 community representatives, both Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute, who are knowledgeable as activists, spiritual leaders, elders, Native leaders, and cultural historians, and who represent Native communities downwind from the Nevada Test Site. It is the objective and purpose of the NCAC to preserve traditional histories for our future generations and to protect our peoples’ rights and benefits, which should accrue to us pursuant to our tribal customs, by empowering our communities in understanding and managing the risks of radiation and other health-related concerns. As a special health and radiation project of the Ely Shoshone Tribe and the NCAC, the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities (NRMNC) project was created in 1994 to educate Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities on the health effects caused by radioactive contamination.

11-2 Nuclear Testing and Native Peoples

Since the beginning of the nuclear age very little has been done to protect the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute’s health and environment from abuse. The U.S. government continues to pollute our Mother Earth with plutonium and other persistent radioactive isotopes in the research, production and maintenance of nuclear bombs. When the Department of Energy (DOE) calculated radiation exposures from the Nevada Test Site in the late 1980s, it neglected to consider unique Native lifestyles. Doses were calculated for nine different lifestyle models, yet none of them took into account the potential risks to Native people.

With this in mind Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council began looking for the truth about how radioactive fallout affected the health of our people and land. In 1993 the Childhood Cancer Research Institute, which has since grown into the Community-Based Hazard Management Program at Clark University (Worcester, MA), was contacted for assistance. That was the beginning phase of the NRMNC project, which has had ongoing support and funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), all in partnership and collaboration with the Ely Shoshone Tribe, technical researchers from Clark University, and community-based researchers from the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities.

Through this special project the NCAC requires community control and empowerment for all funded health research activities due to the under-representation of Native Communities in previous studies on the effects of nuclear fallout. We have trained our Native people to strengthen our capacity for community-based environmental health activities. Community-based researchers have conducted, transcribed, and organized all of the interviews for the project and have been trained in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a computer mapping technology. Community information has been compiled in a Community Exposure Profile, a “living document” written by and for the communities. Community staff have also created and distributed pamphlets and newsletters, and held workshops and presentations on our findings in over 15 communities, and at local, regional and national gatherings.

Community Knowledge and Research
The NRNMC’s local knowledge program has allowed us to gather extensive information from elders of the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities about the lifestyle, culture and socio-demographic characteristics of our recent history. We have collected firsthand observations of the above-ground nuclear test era (1951-62), including observations of environmental abnormalities (such as sick and dying livestock and wildlife), observations of health problems, and descriptions of tests. Some elders remembered visible radiation exposure effects, such as reddening of the skin or hair loss, while living and working outdoors in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many elders reported hearing and feeling abrupt vibrations “like a sonic boom” or seeing “beautifullycolored clouds” and “white dust clouds” traveling through the mountains and valleys from the test site after seeing flashes in the south.

We have also collected critical information about our housing, mobility, diet, and subsistence activities to give a more accurate description of potential radiation exposures. Our findings demonstrate additional and significant exposures that were experienced with Native lifestyles. The most alarming evidence generated so far is based on the fact that Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute families would often eat contaminated wildlife. One particular exposure pathway, the consumption of wild rabbits, was closely analyzed. It became apparent that the thyroid glands of rabbits accumulated radioactive iodine after nuclear weapons tests. Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute families almost always ate several rabbits each week, including the thyroids. Technical researchers at Clark University have used this knowledge to estimate significant doses of radioactive iodine, doses which were not counted by the DOE or the National Cancer Institute. Young children in Duckwater, Nevada, for example, are estimated to have received thyroid doses roughly a few 1,000 times greater than the average daily dose from natural sources of radiation from each of several test events depositing fallout on the community.

These doses are in addition to the doses from contaminated milk that both Native and non-Native residents received. Cows eating contaminated grass passed on the contamination in their milk; Native communities in the 1950s typically consumed fresh local milk and experienced higher exposures than people drinking store-bought milk. We concluded that residents of Duckwater, Shivwits, and other Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities received thyroid doses several-fold higher than non-Native residents in the area.

Studies of thyroid cancer in southwest Utah, around Chernobyl, and in children treated medically with radiation lead us to the further conclusion that Native community residents exposed to fallout as young children experienced roughly twice the thyroid cancer risk of non-Native people. While these results are based on the consumption of wild rabbits, other exposure pathways, including consumption of other small wild game that were routinely eaten at different times of the year, should also be kept in mind.

Above-ground nuclear weapons testing ended in 1962 and our communities have become less dependent on local game for food as local game has become more scarce. However, underground testing was carried out at the test site until 1992 and may resume; these tests have sometimes leaked radioactive fallout outside of the test site at lower levels. More importantly, traditional lifestyles have not been forgotten—although wildlife have suffered since the invasion of Euro-Americans, we hope that we will be able to reestablish our customary diet in a healthier future.

A Model for Managing Hazards
The NRMNC project has served as a national model for conducting health research and education in Native American communities for the purpose of environmental justice. Our work has demonstrated the need for us to take responsibility and control of our own community health issues. Our people must gain an understanding of these complex issues and determine our needs so that we can protect and preserve the health of our people.

The following are being considered for a community-based nuclear hazards management plan: environmental monitoring, a local knowledge program, legal recourse, medical surveillance, health and ecological research, implementation of a geographical information system, and a community education program. Health records, for example, have been poorly maintained over the years and we will have to take responsibility for linking exposures and health effects according to our experience. We are also currently expanding our focus; although the Yucca Mountain waste site has until recently been outside the scope of our project, we are now beginning to work on issues of nuclear waste transportation through our lands.

The Board of Directors of the NCAC maintains oversight of the NRMNC project and has helped to reinforce cultural history and to communicate to our communities that as Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute people, we have existed here for countless generations. This perspective must be maintained as we learn about the impacts of the Nevada Test Site.

Patricia George is project coordinator at the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities project in Ely, Nevada ( Abel Russ is a research associate at the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts (

The following individuals have brought cultural, historical and spiritual presence to this work that will guide us in our future efforts for healing the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities from physical pain, cultural exploitation and spiritual degradation from nuclear contamination: Ian Zabarte, Corrina Bow, Virginia Sanchez (president), Margene Bullcreek (vice-president), Pauline Estevez (secretary), Grace Goad (treasurer), Maurice Frank-Churchill, Dolly BigSoldier, Corbin Harney, Calvin Meyers, Bennie Reilley Sr., Laura Saunders, Eleanor Tom, and special advisors Nilak Butler and Peter Ford.


  1. In Nevada, Yomba Shoshone, Duckwater Shoshone, Ely Shoshone, Timbisha Shoshone, and Moapa Paiute; in Utah, Shivwits Paiute, Kanosh Paiute, Koosharem Paiute, Cedar City Paiute, Indian Peaks Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshute.
  2. Church, BW et al. 1990. Overview of the Department of Energy’s Off-Site Radiation Exposure Review Project. Health Physics 59:503-10.
  3. Our initial analysis was published in 2000 (Frohmberg, E et al. 2000. The assessment of radiation exposures in Native American communities from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada. Risk Analysis 20(1):101-11) and a new analysis is being prepared for publication. The National Cancer Institute failed to consider the possibility of unique Native exposures (NCI 1997. Estimated exposures and thyroid doses received by the American people from Iodine-131 in fallout following the Nevada atmospheric nuclear bomb tests. National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) and continues to ignore this unique exposure pathway.
  4. Jacob, P et al. 1999. Childhood exposure due to the Chernobyl accident and thyroid cancer risk in contaminated areas of Belarus and Russia. Br. J. Cancer 80(9), 1461-9.; Kerber, RA, et al. 1993. A cohort study of thyroid disease in relation to fallout from nuclear weapons testing. JAMA 270:2076-82; Ron, E et al. 1995. Thyroid cancer after exposure to external radiation: a pooled analysis of seven studies. Radiation Research 141:259-277.

Clearing the Air in Chinatown

Asthma advocacy stems from resident-driven research

Chinatown, located in New York City’s Lower Manhattan, is the city’s oldest Chinese community. Since the late 1800s, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived from Guangzhou, a province in southeastern China, Chinatown has been a destination for new immigrants. According to 2000 Census figures, nearly 60 percent of Chinatown residents are foreign-born.

While rich in history, Chinatown is economically poor: thirty-one percent of residents live below the poverty level. The community is also plagued by environmental problems such as poor air quality. The Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) was founded in 1977 to ally the different parts of our diverse community to address such issues. We envisioned an organization that ordinary people could join to improve the community's living and working conditions. Because many families lived in turn-of-thecentury tenements or public housing with substandard conditions, CPA first helped tenants to form associations and demand basic services like heat and hot water. Since then we have worked on a wide array of issues including immigrant rights, voter empowerment, housing and health, and worker rights.

In 1996, CPA learned that Chinatown had one of the highest levels of diesel pollution in the city. We also learned that communities exposed to high amounts of diesel particulates often had high rates of asthma. In 2001, when the World Trade Center collapsed, the air around Lower Manhattan was further contaminated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offered free testing of air in residential apartments south of Canal Street. This border, which was also used by agencies dispensing post-9/11 aid, included the wealthier residents living to the south of Chinatown, but excluded many in our community who were affected by asthma.

Health is a major concern to the Chinatown community. On street corners, residents line up at outreach tables to enroll in low-cost health insurance programs, and doctors’ offices in the neighborhood are often overcrowded. But Chinese immigrants do not have a tradition of environmental activism. We decided that health was the angle to use to raise community awareness about what was happening to our environment.

First, CPA informally asked some residents what they knew about asthma. We were surprised to find that people who had asthma never talked about it. It wasn’t perceived of as a problem. The only public statistics available were asthma hospitalization rates. After researching the environmental health research done by other communities in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and northern Manhattan, we decide to conduct an asthma survey.

The Survey
CPA envisioned an asthma survey that would have multiple benefits. In addition to gathering information, we wanted to do education and outreach and involve many residents—everyone from parents and young people to senior citizens. We also wanted to involve community institutions such as churches, libraries, hospitals, and senior centers, and to develop new leaders.

CPA staff and volunteers developed the survey after studying a similar one done by El Puente, an environmental justice organization in Brooklyn. We also visited the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA) and talked to staff members there who gave us helpful information and advice both before and after our survey. Young people, especially high school and college students, played a big role during this stage. More than 30 multilingual volunteers (speaking several Chinese dialects as well as English) worked to develop and administer the survey, and later, to analyze results.

Since most Chinatown residents work long hours and spend much of their free time outside the home, we decided to reach residents in public places, such as parks, the library, hospitals and community centers. We also wanted to map our results, so we asked people where they lived and recorded that information on the survey sheet. We found that almost everyone we approached was very concerned about the environment and wanted to do something about it.

In Summer 2002, we released the results: one in five households (out of 580 households) reported having a person with asthma living there. We also found that more than half of those asthmatics were children, and 63 percent were diagnosed with asthma after moving to their current apartments. Through one of our members, we acquired and learned to use software to make a map showing the concentrations of people with asthma by zip code. We found that central Chinatown, an area with higher concentrations of traffic and commercial activity, also had a higher concentration of residents with asthma.

Our survey showed a snapshot of our community’s situation and served as an important tool for organizing efforts. During Asthma Awareness Month this May, we organized the first-ever asthma health fair in Chinatown, collaborating with a few other Chinatown groups. Several other asthma awareness events were organized with funding from the local health department. We also testified at public hearings about post-September-11 air quality and asthma in Chinatown. After a great deal of pressure from community residents and allies, the EPA announced that the borders for post-September 11 residential environmental testing would be expanded to include more low-income residents. Also, this past summer, a local youth group made a video about asthma with our information and assistance.

Research, Education, Organizing
In environmental justice struggles, anecdotes and experience are usually not enough to show powerful decision makers that a problem is serious. Numbers and data are often required and the asthma survey provided some of that evidence. However, community needs cannot be portrayed strictly through numbers, maps and pie charts. We need to show the human side and our voices must be heard. Currently, CPA is conducting a two-month Chinatown Environmental Health Leadership Training program through which a group of parents and other residents are learning about the environment and gaining public speaking and leadership skills. Word of this program has spread and members and staff from other organizations in our community want to participate.

Through our efforts, we learned a lot about different ways air quality affects our health. We learned that there are many different sources of air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, that still need to be addressed. We learned that our community has many concerns about the environment. To answer those concerns, we need to make sure that scientific research is driven by community and also combined with education and organizing. There is a lot of work to do in terms of advocacy, capacity building and developing new leaders. Everyone from different corners of the community must join together in the fight for a healthier environment.

Mae Lee is the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in New York.

Youth Participation in Research

Weighing the benefits and challenges of partnerships

Research studies that bring youth and scientific researchers together are often complex. Although many people play a role in the research, including principal investigators, academics, scientists, researchers, and community participants, youth are frequently overlooked. Understanding how the different groups perceive research is essential if the research process is to succeed and meet the different needs of groups, including youth. Children and teens are among those most affected by environmental and public health problems, and for that reason, should be actively involved in any research that has an impact on their communities.

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In the spring of 1997, the River Ambassador Program (RAP), a volunteer-based youth program supported by the Center for Family, Work and Community at the University of Massachusetts- Lowell, formed to assist in a number of community functions. To learn about and connect with their culture, the teens first volunteered for a newly organized event called the Southeast Asian Water Festival. Currently, the program not only provides project-based, hands-on activities relating to environmental justice issues, but it also gives students the opportunities to develop and create their own environmental activities.

In recent years, many environmental interest groups and researchers have approached the program to assist with research projects. The projects range from understanding potential harm from beauty products to surveying fishing activities in Lowell’s canal. We know from experience that working with faculty from a university can be challenging. Researchers may perceive teenagers as an easy way to access the community without valuing the youth as active participants in the project. At times researchers don’t recognize that certain research methods, such as surveys and focus groups, don’t appeal to the youth. Other times research projects are unsuccessful because of a lack of communication or understanding of how a youth program functions; for example, complicated consent forms and procedures are obstacles to youth-researcher collaborations.

Given these challenges, how should adults work with teens on a research projects? One challenge is to identify research methods that will interest youth. Most youth will only participate if they can connect with the research and researchers. Researchers who are friendly and interested in youth are more successful. Another key piece to effective research is making sure teens are fully informed of the project from beginning to end. It is helpful for the teens to understand the stages and processes of the research, and to have the research serve as a learning tool. Youth also know when they are being used, so the interaction they have with researchers must enable them to feel like integral parts of the project, and affirm that their input is valuable.

RAP Research Projects
Following are several examples of RAP research activities. These examples describe the range of projects made available to youth and also detail some problems that can emerge in youth-expert partnerships.

1) The Food Ethnography Project, concluded in 2003, studied food and cultural practices within the Cambodian community, particularly practices that might affect environmental health. This project met multiple goals: it connected to an intergenerational Khmer community through an interview process; and captured and recorded experiences that helped University of Massachusetts researchers, local health providers and a community group better understand food practices. The project also helped researchers become more familiar with cultural practices and important traditions (e.g. fishing, gardening and farming) that may lead to increased environmental health risks from living in a highly urbanized area such as Lowell. The project ultimately sought to understand the best ways to share information about food and environmental health.

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Selected teens from the River Ambassador Program were trained by the ethnographers and researchers to be professional interviewers and researchers. The research was unique because it was teen-driven and allowed room for flexibility. Teens had the opportunity to perform the research at home at times that were convenient to them. This gave them a chance to interview friends and family during dinnertime or in a school cafeteria, and to take photos of their favorite everyday foods.

Besides participating in the research, the teens also enjoyed learning about the researchers themselves. Teens are always in search of positive role models and this project took a personal tone and allowed the teens to explore their curiosity. The teens were interested in learning about ethnography (the study of human cultures), the needed skills and education, and how much ethnographers are paid. A successful connection between youth and researchers is important as a means of ensuring long-term sensitive and useful research. If any of the youth become inspired or encouraged through this interaction to explore education and a career in environmental health or a related field, then there could be the additional success of cultivating, in the long run, a researcher who is from the community instead of an “outsider.” This is especially important with a community of relatively new immigrants.

2) The Canal Fish Project, completed this year, had the goals of educating and promoting awareness about fish consumption and the dangers of mercury in fish to the Lowell community. One challenging aspect of this project was identifying a common message. There were disagreements among the partners about whether or not to include the findings on water quality, and whether or not to emphasize the dangers of fish consumption. Some partners did not want to be responsible for stating that fish, potentially contaminated with mercury from the river, were safe to eat. Others recognized the central cultural and nutritional role of fish in the Southeast Asian communities of Lowell, and felt it would be inappropriate to create fear about consuming those fish.

Yet another challenge for effective youth participation was that the project focused almost entirely on the environmental science component and lacked authentic community involvement. A nonresident organization led the project with funding from a local community organization. Multiple technical assistance partners were brought in to distribute the roles but the issue of project ownership was unclear. Be-cause some of the project leaders were not from Lowell, they were less educated about the fact that Lowell is an immigrant community, rich in culture and diversity. They relied mostly on the knowledge of community organizations and the teens. This project was not successful in our eyes. If done differently, we would like to be part of the decision-making process from the start. The project would also include community inputs, shared data, and stipends for teens.

3) Water Quality Testing began when we realized existing water quality testing had yet to involve the Southeast Asian community even though many Southeast Asian families fished and swam in the river. The results from the water quality testing were meant to draw the attention of families, but we failed with the "hands-on" component. We had hoped to have children participate in the water quality testing at the Southeast Asian Water Festival but we found that parents considered the river too polluted to allow their children to wade into even shallow parts.

In addition to testing the water, we hoped to build linkages between the community and local organizations to heighten community awareness of water issues, and to reach parents through their children. We succeeded to some extent on these goals: information was distributed during local community events and festivals.

Lessons Learned
Following are some lessons we have learned about how to succeed in involving teens in research that makes a difference in their lives:

  1. In every research project, researchers need to make room for flexibility (i.e. adjusting research to suit youth interest, schedules) and realize that nothing quite works according to plan.
  2. Listening to the needs of the participants is vital to the success of any project. By building a sense of trust and understanding both groups will be able to function together.
  3. Working with teens can be complicated but also very rewarding.

Khan Chao and Sokny Long are co-advisors to the River Ambassador Program (RAP) at the Center for Family, Work and Community at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. RAP is a program of the New Ventures Environmental Justice Partnership, whose goal is to strengthen environmental health research and applications to improve the health of refugees and immigrants by expanding partnerships, developing a stronger university/community relationship, sharing innovations, and drawing strength from immigrant youth.

Research in Action

Community organizers and advocates worldwide are making efforts to provide low-income and people-of-color communities with the scientific research and technology they need to launch campaigns and protect their communities from environmental harm. The following is just a sampling of such endeavors that groups can learn from and incorporate into their work.


Academic Institutions, Communities and Agencies Network (ACA-Net)
ACA-Net joins together historically black colleges and universities with communities and government agencies in a collaborative effort to respond to environmental hazards in urban and rural communities. By building a network of people-of-color scientists and professional technicians committed to solving environmental injustices, ACA-Net provides communities with emergency, short-term, and long-term resources for achieving non-toxic living environments.
Mildred McClain, Executive Director, ACA-Net
1115 Habersham St, Savannah, GA, 21401
Tel: (912)233-0907 Fax: (912)233-5105

Environmental Justice & Health Union (EJHU)
The mission of the EJHU is to identify tools to help environmental justice activists and environmental health professionals work together to reduce environmental disease in poor minority communities. EJHU produces Catalyst, a monthly newsletter, distributed free to small community groups, with up-to-date information on environmental justice, environmental health and opportunities for partnerships. They also publish reports analyzing racial disparities in environmental health data collected by the federal government.
Max Weintraub, Director
Environmental Justice & Health Union
8 Captain Drive, #355
Emeryville, CA 94608

Southern California Environmental Justice Collaborative (SCEJC)
Initiated in 1998 by Communities for a Better Environment, SCEJC brings together academic and independent researchers to conduct community-based participatory research on air quality and environmental justice, and to provide scientific and environmental policy training to community organizations in Southern California. The Collaborative has conducted and published studies documenting racial disparities in exposures to environmental hazards. This research has supported successful community campaigns to create stronger air quality standards in Southern California and to promote environmental justice policies statewide.
Michele Prichard, Director of Special Projects
Liberty Hill Foundation
2121 Cloverfield, Suite 113
Santa Monica, CA 90404
(310) 453-3611 ext. 104

Progressive Technology Project (PTP)
PTP seeks to help organizations in underserved communities realize their potential through information technology. Through events, online resources, and the Community Organizing Technology Grants program, PTP provides community groups with technological capacity building, information exchange forums and grant-making assistance.
Mark Sherman, Executive Director
2801 21st Ave S, Ste 132E
Minneapolis, MN 55407
Tel: (612) 724-2600

Environmental Public Health Tracking
Launched nationally by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Public Health Tracking is a program being implemented across the country at state and local levels. The fundamental objective is to coordinate and enhance existing information systems in order to reduce the crippling burden of disease. An Environmental Health Tracking System will document exposures to environmental pollutants; track disease trends over time and geography; enable researchers to better link exposures and disease; provide the scientific basis for evaluating and developing public health and environmental protection policies; and facilitate the publics’ right-to-know about environmental health issues. For more information:


groundWork partners with communities exposed to environmental hazards in Southern Africa to attain a better quality of life through civic participation. The organization achieved international recognition for their landmark “Bucket Brigades” collaboration with their American partner, Communities for a Better Environment, facilitated by the South African Exchange Program for Environmental Justice. This project allowed vulnerable South African communities to monitor their own air quality in an effort to secure legally-binding emissions standards.
Bobby Peek, Director, groundWork
Tel: +27 (0)33 342 5662 Fax: +27 (0)33 342 5665

Pollution Monitoring Laboratory, Center for Science & Environment (CSE)
CSE has worked for over 20 years to raise awareness about environmental hazards in India and to encourage communities as well as the government to take action to reduce public health risks posed by these hazards. Also known as the “People’s Lab,” the Pollution Monitoring Lab investigates food, water, soil, air, and biological materials for contamination. The lab publicizes its results widely to empower communities to fight the polluters who compromise their health.
Sunita Narain, Director Center for Science & Environment
41, Tughlakabad Institutional Area
New Delhi-110062, INDIA
Tel: +91 (011) 29955124 Fax: +91 (011) 29955879

Environment Support Group
Based in Bangalore, India, Environment Support Group (ESG) believes in promoting patterns of development that are socially just, economically viable, ecologically sustainable, politically participative and culturally vibrant. ESG provides trainings on environmental science, legislation and policies, perspectives of development, alternatives, and campaign strategies for a variety of focus groups at the village, district and regional levels. It is supported by an inhouse staff consisting of technically qualified researchers, and draws upon diverse expertise on a case-by-case basis.
Environment Support Group
36 Reservoir Road, Basavanagudi
Bangalore 560 004 INDIA
Telefax: 91-80-6657995/6722563 Fax: 91-80-2274699

Curitiba Research and Urban Planning Institute (IPPUC)
Curitiba, Brazil Curitiba, a city in the south of Brazil, is world renowned as a sustainable city. IPPUC supports continued sustainability efforts through research. Using maps and statistics, IPPUC gives the local administration a picture of urban reality and provides tools for diagnosing and solving problems affecting the community. Additionally, IPPUC supports citizen research; one example is their Geographic Information Systems (GIS) division. Created in 1989, the GIS division is in charge of systematizing GIS-based information about the city of Curitiba, with the purpose of analyzing urban interventions and providing support for Curitiba's development plans. For more information go to:
rua Bom Jesus, 669
Curitiba, PR, Brasil

Compiled by Jessica DiComillo of WEACT for Environmental Justice in Northern Manhattan.