A report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that Louisiana's oil refineries were pouring some of the largest amounts of toxic chemicals into public waterways.
Environmental justice advocates applaud the legislation, but say there’s more work to do on environmental justice and energy equity.
Gabriel Gadsden joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss the intersection of rodent infestations and energy justice and how we can simultaneously tackle both issues.
Gadsden, a current fellow and Ph.D. student of Environmental Sciences at Yale University’s School of the Environment, also talks about getting researchers to break out of siloed thinking, tips for science communicators and how his golf game is going.
The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.
Gabriel, how are you doing today?
I'm doing great. It's very exciting to be on the podcast. Also, we've gotten some time to hang out with each other and learn a little bit about each other. And so to bridge that conversation further is exciting. And hopefully, you know, people listen to it and take something away from our conversation today.
Yes, hopefully people do listen to it. That's an important part of this. And I know that people will and are listening right now. So that's, that's good to know. And Gabriel, where are you today? Where are you talking to us from?
I'm in New Haven, Connecticut. In the basement, in my office, my advisor said that doesn't look like I live in ... which I don't know if is a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your take on academia being a grad student. Funny or not even funny. But we just had our first snowstorm in New Haven. But it's already gone.
Came and went, hey
yeah, already gone, indeed.
When our snow comes here, it doesn't leave 'till May. So we just keep, we just keep stacking it, and stacking it on top of old snow, which I like it is a good, it is a good thing for us to have that. So speaking of place, if you've listened to the podcast, you know, I'd like to go back to the beginning, before we talk about the exciting stuff you're working on now. So tell me about Hayti. I hope I'm pronouncing that right. But historically Black community in Durham, North Carolina where you grew up.
Yeah, no. So Hayti. And don't feel bad because I feel like everybody gets it wrong when they first read it. It does read like Haiti, but it's Hayti. It is the Black section of I would say more like center-southerner. There's actually a Hayti historic center, which kind of documents both a congregation space but also a area that documents the history of that area. So it kind of runs between Fable street and Highway 55, in North Carolina. The Center is around there. A lot of Black businesses, the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company is kind of connected to the Hayti center, a lot of Black elementary and middle schools ... Shepherd Middle School is around there. So a hub of you know, Black entrepreneurs and academia educators kind of in that areas, putting roots down. And that's where a lot of my family grew up in North Carolina.
And I'm guessing that Hayti, since you grew up there as a child, you don't know any difference, right? I mean, when you're a child, wherever you grow up, that's what you know. But what can you pieced together from growing up there? maybe it is how it affected you now or in your youth?
you know, but maybe not outside so much of Hayti in my family. I... my dad was always big on you know, understanding the history of where we're coming from, you know, ancestors and whatnot. Understand the history of Durham. He was there when he was a child while his mother was in grad school at UNC in public health while his dad was in law school as well. And so, you know, he got to see Durham and Hayti in a very different light. And so, you're just kind of understanding that, you know, by the time that I was being reared in North Carolina, North Carolina Mutual had closed down its doors. And so that's kind of, you know, you can see in a lot of black areas of cities, you know, there's this really steep incline of entrepreneurship and whatnot, and then there's a decline, for whatever reason, whether there's a highway being built, you know, just kind of distant disinvestment into an area, it still had a lot of the history and the roots was still there, but it wasn't maybe as bustling as, as it would have been in maybe the 50s, 60s.
And where and how did science enter your life?
Yeah, you know, I was most excited about this question. And I kind of molded over it and thinking about it. I think that for me, science was always a part of my trajectory, as it was a part of my life. And so I'll say this: growing up, I was diagnosed with a speech impediment that was in part because I couldn't hear, and I still can't hear out of my right ear. And so, you know, not being able to talk to kids, and not really being able to hear anybody, I kind of stayed in my own head, stayed to myself, but, you know, when you're wandering, you know, devoid of interaction with other kids, you find other things to interact with. And so my first thing was rocks, loved them loved how they looked, clean them, you know, put them in buckets, and had this rock collection. So you know, first thing was geology for me. And then I got a little bit older, and then it became PBS. So I was watching Zoom. And learning about chemistry didn't know it was chemistry at the time. But they were adding baking soda and sodium chloride and making gases. And so I would go into my parents’ bathroom probably wasted about $200 worth of product throughout that time period. And I was mixing Vitalis, and Listerine, and alcohol and hoping that I was making and make a discovery of some new chemical, some new gas. My mom had a bachelor's degree from North Carolina Central University. That was her first degree from there. And, you know, she said to me, "don't mix ammonia and bleach." As you know, she saw what I was doing, but they kind of let me stay off for myself after that it was Zaboomafoo. And, you know, I won't sing the catchphrase. But you know, you know, who do you see? Can you identify this mystery? What was this animal? and loved Animal Planet, "Top 10 dangerous," and all of these other shows just really captivated me when I was younger. And so you know, taking that into the classroom, being generally curious, not really having the foundations. And I think we'll get into that a little bit more. But in the last thing, I'll say, and why I say that science was just kind of always the part of me, was that I grew up and still am religious. And so in Christianity, what is my religion that I identify with, but you know, whether it's Judaism, Buddhism, Muslim, you will find environmentalism, ecology in the roots of them. And that's something that I've kind of come back to now here at Yale School of the Environment, a lot of connections with the Divinity School, and recognizing the similarities and recognizing that our morality is tied to the environment. And obviously, with traditional ecological knowledge, TEK, I think kind of making a resurgence in people's psyche, and the paradigm shift that we need to really get back to, quote-unquote, "roots" is something that I've always carried with me. There's tons of verses in the Bible that a lot more knowledgeable people could spout off in terms of connecting those two. And so I was filled with wonder when I was a kid, and it carried me to here.
Excellent. And you just alluded to this; you said, I remember this in your application. You mentioned that your primary education left you woefully unprepared to conduct research, which I don't think is an uncommon thing. I know I hadn't seen a scientific paper until graduate school. I didn't know what they were. So I don't think you're alone. But can you talk about this obstacle? And how you overcame it to go on to, right now, one of the most prestigious universities in the country?
Absolutely, I'll start with this. I don't want that statement. You know, people hear it to say that I had bad instructors or teachers. My elementary school was filled, filled with amazing educators. I could name them, and some of them are still friends with me now. These were incredible people. But when it came to specialists, we had computer PE, art, and music. There was no science special. It was, there was one teacher at the school at the time, Mrs. Daniels, who had a classroom filled with animals and that was probably the closest thing we got to true science education at that time. Then I went to middle school and so obviously I've been watching these shows and asking my own questions, reading my own books. But it's just another step up now you're just learning about tectonic plates and geology, you know, kind of periods and whatnot, the Paleocene or Jurassic, kind of understanding that. But that stuff there I had already read. It wasn't fascinating to me. It was nice to be able to raise my hand and know that, you know, the question that kind of kept my interest in science. But we weren't learning the scientific method, we weren't looking at two different species and asking, Why is this one different, and whether or not we could change in the laboratory, we weren't getting any kind of hands-on experience. Same thing in high school. I didn't see science shown to a younger audience until I was a TA, and teaching assistant for Duke TIP, which is a talent program run by Duke University. And there I saw, you know, true scientific method building, trying things, failing, going back, you know, iterative process, that's kind of part of the science experiments that you see in laboratories. You know, went to a high school college. And so, I did get some early science classroom experience before going off to the UNC. But when I got there, you know, understanding how to navigate those classrooms, but also recognizing that there was a world outside of chemistry and biology, which just was not something that clicked to me, I think about it now, and I probably should have should have been an environmental science major, I would have had an easier time. You know, it wasn't until sophomore year that I realized that I was taking classes that were for pre-med, you know, doctors, and that's not what I wanted to do. I knew that going in. But I didn't know of other majors. And so it's it's kind of a multi-tier thing, both from the kind of primary education getting students prepped for the many fields that are going to be available to you as a college student, but also colleges recognizing and you know, I've seen I have some friends now who are in like STEM education, at the kind of academic level, and are trying to write papers and trying to understand what fails when they make that jump from high school to college. I think that there's some really good progress going on. But I think it's kind of a two-fold issue. One, a lot of the primary education, particularly in Black communities, don't have the money to bring in science instructors to do specials, or science Fridays and stuff like that. But then two, when you get to the university level, universities just aren't understanding that students are coming in from very different standpoints, and maybe have very different interest and maybe only thinks that biology is the only way to get into science, which isn't the case.
It's a great point. And I like to think that this program, not only is... the point is to show that scientists themselves are from diverse backgrounds and can be diverse people. But also that science itself is diverse. I think I grew up thinking that science; maybe, I think you were saying this kind of too, I thought of chemists, chemistry, beakers, and you know, the lab experience experiments and didn't think of social scientists or, you know, even forestry and fisheries to a certain extent, were things that I think if I would have been exposed to at a younger age, I would have said, "Oh, my goodness, yes, I want to do that! That's excellent" So yeah, those are excellent points. And I hope I hope some of this program is opening people's eyes to different types of cool science. So before we get into that cool science that you are doing right now, what is the defining moment or event that shaped your identity?
So from a science standpoint, when I was an intern with the Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab, with Dr. Harris, Sam Harris at the University of Michigan, at the time, was the first time going and doing kind of forested wildlife ecology fieldwork. And I remember going into the forest and kind of seeing the light beams, and hot and sweaty – and had just climbed a hill and gone through the thicket– and I kind of emerged into this field and felt a spiritual connection, a birthing. You know, it was, it was truly a moment of great pleasure for me to knowing that I had finally done that, what I felt like my life was supposed to be, like was going out and collecting data and trying to then come back and share that data with with people. From a more personal standpoint... Maybe, man, my parents would have a different story. I know the story my dad would tell. For me, it was maybe a bit of a devotional, I was actually dedicated to God when I was seven. And I felt like I was always a good kid, I felt like I always had this connection, you know, we talked about a little bit earlier. But for me, it was this recognition that... humbling experience to know that I am just a small dot in this great big world, and a lot of it that we don't understand and that we have faith in it. We have faith in science, right, that we'll learn some of our answers, and we have faith in our religions. We have faith in humanity and our people. I think that was a moment, you know, being very young and actually just realizing that I'm just a dot in this, you know, kind of vastness, but I could make a difference. Clearly, people felt like I was making a difference in their lives within that, that congregation. And so I think, "oh, I can make a difference in this world. And whatever capacity I am," I've tried to carry that with me.
Excellent. That's an excellent, excellent couple of moments. And let's get into some of the research you're doing now in making that difference. And so I've had the good fortune to not only talk to you when you applied for this program, but we met in Philadelphia and talked about your research. So some of this I know, but some I don't. And I find it fascinating. So as you put it, it's kind of at the intersection of human health, wildlife, and energy justice. So can you, just off the top, tell us how these three fields merge in your research?
How does it merge? It started when I was back an intern, and walking through the forest with with my advisor, Dr. Harrison, starting to ask questions about society, and how all this what it really meant, when it boiled down to it. Again, my dad and mom had instilled in me, you know, we need to stand up for what we think is right. You know, being just and being fair, and morality. Science was the path that I was taking. It wasn't like I was gonna go to law school, though my dad might still think that's a possibility. And the questions in ecology just weren't there. At that time, I don't think ecology –this was, you know, back in 2016, 2017– I don't think that they had really kind of saw that ecology could really be tied to social justice or social equity. And at that point, I'm really grateful that Dr. Harris kind of saw that and wants people to be great. So it's like, well, you should probably go into environmental science, try to find Dr. Tony Reams, who was at the time taking on students who does energy justice work. And I kind of made that pivot and knew at the time that it was a hard pivot. But it worked out. And I just had a text message kind of chat with Tony and just, you know, still believes in me, He still thinks that the ideas are great, and going to continue to do good things. But there, I was able to actually collect data that was directly tied or more visceral for people doing air quality data in an efficient housing. And so environmental justice is, you know, public health, public health is epidemiology, and you know, all these things kind of merge and mix together. And so recognizing that people were living in inefficient housing, and then had bad health, having this background in ecology with wildlife, and you know, how as a story goes, I was reading energy justice papers, and I was reading wildlife papers. And I thought to myself, "Oh, foxes, and other things like raccoons and bats live in people's homes. How do they get into those homes, though?" And then, you know, I just, you know, the literature, you know, they talk about these gaps in the foundation and inefficient walls. And so there's no insolation. So it becomes, basically just a nesting place for wildlife. And I thought, "Oh, wow, this is, it's pretty interesting." And, you know, lo and behold, there wasn't a lot of data on it. Now, I can certainly talk more about the literature that is there. But at the time, and still to a large degree, there is not any hard data about housing quality and wildlife and health and putting those two together, even though you know, wildlife, they carry zoonotic diseases that can be, you know, obviously transmissible to humans, that make us sick. And so, you know, it's kind of becomes this double jeopardy of if you have wildlife that are in your house carrying diseases and you're already in poor health because of your inefficient housing, what that could mean for public health crises? and kind of being cost effective. If there's a solution to multiple things, we should probably champion that solution. And I have to thank Dr. Grove for that, in the urban ecology class that I just was a teaching fellow for, understanding this complex nature of problems. And if we don't think complex, you know that they are complex problems, and there's multiple ways of entering the issue, then we're not going to get very far.
And just on the ground level, what does this research look like? How do you conduct a study that examines both energy inefficiency and rodents?
Yeah, so, as a first year, as then, last year, first-year Ph.D. student or someone trying to get into grad school, I thought I was going to save the world and then realized, no, it wasn't realistic. But you know, we have an unlimited supply of plunder, right? Um, I thought I was going to talk to some people in Philadelphia; they were going to let me into the house, we were going to get all this money and do home interview scores. ATS is, and then we're going to trap inside. And then we were going to retrofit with another $15,000. And then do a before-and-after controlled trial. None of that happened or didn't happen yet. We were still optimistic that some of those things would happen in time. And hopefully, you know, the funders who are listening to this will recognize the importance of this. But the reality is that we're starting outside, you know, Philadelphia. While they do have vector control, Philadelphia has not kind of systematically kept ties with, you know, what the pathogens are, and where the rodents are in the city outside of 311 calls. And so hopefully working with them to get them just kind of more data, where the rodents in the city, I think it's kind of the first question and what environmental variables, you know, both, you know, trash receptacles, Park size, you know, trash on the street, housing, type of housing stock, is attributing rodent populations, or is increasing or decreasing rodent populations, excuse me. I think that’s, so that's the first step. And then the second step is to then, you know, ask for in these neighborhoods, collecting rodents making contacts, hopefully, we have a meeting tomorrow with 57 Blocks, which is a gun violence advocacy kind of research group out at the DA office in Philadelphia, recognizing that some of these issues with what is attracting rodents in cities, also could mitigate or increased gun violence. And so I say that to say, you, you work with people who are already doing great work in the city on different issues – Philly Thrive and other folks that are doing EJ work – And hopefully, by those connections and those collaborations, then they will say, "Oh, yes, this person, it would love to talk to you about this research." And that's how we're going to get into homes.
So to zoom out, we're talking about cracks in the foundation are problems in the home that are first leading to energy inefficiency. So maybe your bills are higher, your house isn't as warm, your house isn't as cool. And then the second part of that is rodents are able to get in. And what kinds of diseases or health problems are we talking about when we think about rodents getting into people's homes?
So first is childhood asthma, allergens that are already so if you're in a low income area, you likely maybe have some type of power plant or some type of industry that's near you. So you already have those pollutants getting into your home more because it's inefficient, or for whatever reason, you have higher rates of asthma, and now you add on allergen load from mice and rats, so that's going to be exacerbated. So, you know, more ER trips, more money spent on inhalers and other types of treatments. There's also the issue of leptospirosis, which, and hantavirus, s more in the west right now. And I'm not going to get into kind of the debacle of funding that research in cities or in other areas outside of the West. But but certainly those are kind of the two main ones. There's also typhus –plague is still in Detroit.
and I have to imagine that there's a mental health, stress component to this. There's social stress, I mean, the idea of maybe you don't want to invite people into your home when you know you have an infestation. So I can see this kind of spider webbing outside of the very acute, physical, physical illnesses into mental and social struggles. So I don't want to place blame here and I know this is probably a large issue with some historical roots. But who's to blame? What is the... why is this historically been a blind spot for regulators, housing officials and others?
1950s was a really big time. I don't know the researcher's first name but Davies, I believe it's his last name, did a lot of work in Baltimore. There's a lot of really great case studies in Budapest and some other cities of like kind of rat-proof towns that brought population levels of rats down to less than 1% of their historic numbers. Even in Philadelphia in the 1940s, they have their first really big campaign about getting rid of rodents. And then in the 1960s, the mayor kind of created the rat control group, and that rat control group, you know, said, you know, that we will not take the job, if you do not seal up all the cracks in any, you know, in your home, you know, essentially, you know, back then maybe they didn't think about is energy efficiency of sealing up your envelope and the energy inside it, you know, get that, but it makes sense. But life happens, policy change, you know, turnover, it's a lot easier to say, you know, put out bait blocks, and rodent trapping, than to actually do systemic change. We see that time and time again. Actually, solving an issue takes coordinated efforts between many different factors from public health, to housing and development, to parks and rec, all coming together at that table. And cities are not willing to make that choice, at least in America right now, major cities, I'm not going to bash on any politician. But if you follow New York politics, you would have received like a rat czar job posting recently. And the reality is, you know, all the memes where, you know, Charlie Day from Always Sunny Philadelphia, kind of what's his kind of mace-bat-like situation that's gonna go, get rid of all the rodents. And that's not going to work. You know, it’s, and it's not just sanitation, is not just sealing up the home. And it's not just getting rid of vacant lots. It's all of those things at once, across a large scale in a city. And so until we're ready to put up that money, allow natural predators into our cities and kind of coexist with nature in a healthy way. And I don't think that you know, so, you know, really, really comes down to is political will and resource allocation. I mean, most researchers will say, you know, that's a lot of the issues. And if you throw money out enough, it'll fix itself, and you get the right people in the room. But right now, we just, there's really great researchers. Jason Munchie. I'm drawing a blank. But even Merkin Rosenbaum. These are people who are doing rodent research right now. And certainly know more than I do. But I think would advocate the same thing that is a, you know, you have to have this team of teams. To quote Dr. Grove, Morton Grove, if you don't have this team of teams, you're not going to solve the issue. And so cities have to really be ready to sit down and bring people together and spend the money.
What makes you hopeful about this? you mentioned some researchers who are doing very good work. Are you seeing any on-the-ground movement in Philadelphia or beyond? What makes you hopeful and optimistic?
Yeah, I mean, Matt Fryer, another researcher, just trying to create like this really handy, simple rodent tool you can kind of put into cracks and understand whether, you know, it is susceptible to being infested by rodents. So you have this, you know, research-entrepreneurship, kind of burgeoning space, you also have new sensors, with Rat Mo, there are different technologies that are trying to get up, you know, making sure that we spend money in an efficient manner. As much as I don't think the idea of a rat czar going to work, the fact that, that that is a possibility that, you know, maybe the right person that's in that position could really make a change if they're kind of advocating for all of these different methods and allocating funds in the right spaces. I also think that there's maybe a little bit of a change in public perception... I kind of write and so I'm working on, you know, Environmental Health News with you and Maria, that, you know, it's time that people stop accepting this as the normal and I'm seeing that more and more maybe that's because I'm in this space. But I certainly think that as it gets out of hand again, I think COVID-19, and this kind of increase in route and sightings people at home are recognizing that, you know, they're out during the daytime, they're out during the night time, they're, you know that the squeaky wheel is going to get squeakier. And so I think I'm seeing a little bit more of that. I certainly know all of my friends know about it more. And so they send me a lot of papers and different articles from different fields, kind of hinting at this as well. And so I think that does make me optimistic. You know, I certainly have gotten some great responses for my work and so recognizing that people see this as a, as a serious issue, I think it will only get easier to advocate for true rodent exclusion or reduction of populations in an impactful way.
Yeah, sometimes a big first step for any of these kinds of wicked issues is just awareness. It's a good, it's a good first step. And speaking of that, so I know after I talked to you about your research, it seemed very intuitive, that these problems would be linked, but it is different and intersectional. And I'm sure you've had to explain it to folks, I'm wondering if you just have any tips for scientists interested in learning to better communicate.
After just giving two presentations, two final presentations, I should have practiced more and everybody in my lab as a practice, you know? giving a talk to very different fields also helps. You know, most people don't study rodents, particularly in ecology, or at least well, urban ecology, just because they're not considered wildlife. And so you have to talk to the epidemiologists who are in a very public health, atmosphere or medical research. And so you have to link these things, even this idea of, you know, retrofitting versus, you know, sealing up the envelope, what word you use? those choice words, getting rid of the jargon, paring it down writing different grants, and then writing research talks, and then writing an academic article about it, you're putting it in very different ways. And you find out what works and what clicks with people. Just keep harping on it, if you believe in it, you know, the right words are going to come. And, you know, the same thing as you're reading widely talk to as many different groups. Because they know, someone in social science may say, "this is a word that would really clicked with people."
I also think starting off, as you as I've heard you do, with just kind of how this affects people is a very tangible way to make these issues click with people. I mean, we've all, most of us – I had a mouse in the house the other day – I mean, this is, this is common, this is a common thing that a lot of people have dealt with, maybe not on the scale that you're researching. But I think starting with, how does this impact people and their health is a really good starting point. And I've seen you do that. So of course, you can't be out there chasing rodents and looking at foundations all of the time. I happen to know you're a golfer. So what is... I don't know if it's golf weather out there if you're getting a bunch of snow, but when you are able to golf, do you get out much, and what's your handicap these days?
I do get, I get out as much as I can. Yale is really generous and allows students to play at a discounted rate after turn hours. And so I'll go over there, it's a great golf course. And handicap, you know, I'll say this, there are no pictures on a scorecard. And that can work in a good way or a bad way. What I'll say is that I can get some pars most of the time. I'm shooting bogey, every now and again. I'll get a double bogey or triple bogey more often than I'd like. But if I were doing like a two-man scramble, I wouldn't hold you down as badly as you would think.
Before we get you out of here today, I have three rapid-fire questions that are supposed to be fun. Hopefully they are fun, where you can just answer with one word or a phrase. So the first one is, what was the highlight of the past year for you
was able to go to... see my family. You know, I don't get to see them often. And so in spending any time with my dad and playing golf with my brother. It's always a treat seeing my nieces and my nephews is always fun; being with them
For sure. The best concert I've ever been to was
Oh, two. So Mick Jenkins not maybe a conscious rapper but a little bit less conscious. Really fun and authentic feeling, and then Jidenna, the '85 to Africa tour was really great. I'm a small concert like... I'm huge I love going to concerts. I like going to the smaller ones. I don't think I'll ever go see Beyonce or Drake. But the 30,000 people do It doesn't seem fun.
That makes, that makes two of us this, the more intimate concerts are, well, they're more intimate. You get to see and feel things in a much different way. I totally agree. And last question every day I look forward to blank.
Being a good person, trying to be a genuine and caring person, I think, sometimes can throw people off. Like, what's up with this guy? But I hope that I hope that people who know me and or will meet me now this is just as genuine as I can to be nice.
But I sure hope being kind doesn't spark too much skepticism among people in your life or beyond. Because it's, it's something I felt from you, and I think it's it's a good thing. We should all be kind and genuine. So last question. I've been asking everybody, what is the last book that you read for fun?
Cool. The last book I read for fun. I have to I pulled them off-site, so I won’t butcher their name. So the one I actually just finished was The Age disaster, the failure of organizations in New York and the nation. Great book, quite old, at this point. 1990 was published, but still is very salient, particularly because of the COVID-19, the climate disaster, I mean, you name it, there's a lack of, of coordination and whatnot. So yeah, go go get that. And that was like a free book lying around that I had just picked up from the department. And then, the other book is Fighting the good fight: The militarization of the civil rights movement. And so I'm currently reading that, and I've had some really good conversations because there's something to be said about whether or not we should be using this language. Is it helpful? Is it actually more harmful because of traumatic kind of imagery that comes with militarization? I'm still debating that myself, but I certainly find it a thought-provoking book, if not a bit challenging for a person to kind of wrap their heads around. So I've been asking people, you know, that's my question now at talks. Hey, should we be using this language? Is that hopeful to take that militarization of civil rights to the militarization of climate justice, and whether or not these campaigns and precision and training and communications, those types of things that make campaigns go well, should be co-opted?
Excellent. Sounds like a thought-provoking book. And speaking of thought-provoking, you can find Gabriel's essay soon out on ehn.org, where you can learn more about his research. And we'll be sure to get that in front of readers and listeners, Gabriel, thank you so much. We're doing this today. It's a pleasure having you in the program.
Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day. And thank you to everybody who's listening.
PITTSBURGH — Public health advocates are calling on people impacted by air pollution to demand stricter federal air quality regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is in the process of revising federal limits on PM2.5 pollution.
PM2.5 are toxic airborne pollution particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (smaller than the width of a human hair) coming from industrial sources, traffic, wildfires and fossil fuel combustion, among other sources.
On Friday, the EPA released a proposal for new standards that would lower the limit for annual average PM2.5 pollution from 12 micrograms per cubic meter to between nine and 10 micrograms per cubic meter. This limit represents the maximum average level of air pollution inf a year before regulatory agencies take steps to lower emissions to protect public health.
The current standard was set in 2012 and left in place in 2020 under the Trump administration. The science on air pollution has evolved considerably since 2012, and many public health experts say the limits should be stricter. The World Health Organization, for instance, recommends an annual PM2.5 limit of 5 micrograms per cubic meter; and the scientific committee charged with reviewing U.S. federal standards in 2020 recommended an annual PM2.5 limit of 8 micrograms per cubic meter.
“We are deeply disappointed that EPA’s proposal today did not include a standard of 8 micrograms per cubic meter,” Harold Wimmer, President and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement. “More protective standards are necessary to drive cleanup nationwide in communities that currently experience unhealthy levels of deadly particle pollution.”
Those communities include many in Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania. Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, ranks in the top 1 percent of counties in the U.S. for cancer risk from industrial air pollution. Communities near polluting facilities and elevated PM2.5 exposure also experience higher risk for asthma, lung disease, heart disease and even mental illness.
Local environmental health advocates are joining national health organizations and experts in demanding stricter federal air pollution standards and are calling on impacted residents to participate in upcoming EPA hearings over the next two months.
“We need everyone in our region which continues to experience poor air quality, especially people in the Mon Valley environmental justice region, to participate in the upcoming EPA hearings so that their voices can be heard about ongoing, terrible air pollution problems that exist in our area,” Matthew Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project, a Pittsburgh-based collaborative of more than 50 regional and national environmental advocacy groups, said in a press statement.
Mehalik added that strengthening the daily PM2.5 limit, in addition to the annual threshold, would help “stop the horrible, overnight pollution episodes that plague our region.” He was referring to the super pollution events seen in the region, fueled by industry’s large emissions that get trapped close to the ground due to topography and weather conditions.
While the annual average for PM2.5 deals with the average level of pollution in the air over the course of a year, strengthening the daily PM2.5 would reduce the amount of air pollution that can be released in a 24-hour period. These limits are most impactful to people living near polluting facilities, since even brief spikes in air pollution exposure are linked to corresponding spikes in hospital visits for heart disease, respiratory illness, mental illness and premature deaths.
"For thousands of our neighbors in Allegheny County, this is not a quality of life issue, it is a life or death issue,” Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, said in a statement.
The EPA’s proposed update has no changes to the 24-hour PM2.5 standard, which was set to 35 micrograms per cubic meter in 2012. Public health advocacy groups, including the American Lung Association and the Breathe Project, are calling for the 24-hour standard to be lowered to 25 micrograms per cubic meter.
Environmental health advocates at the state level, including PennEnvironment, PennFuture, Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light and the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, are also calling for stricter federal air pollution standards.Public comments aren’t yet open and the dates for public hearings on the new proposed rules have not yet been set. Updates will be announced on the EPA website.
LOS ANGELES — “You’d never know it by looking at it,” said Don Martin as he faced a tall green wall decorated with a row of bushes. “A danger that’s hidden from view.”
Beyond the wall is the Murphy Site, an active oil drilling project operated by E&B Natural Resources that uses chemicals residents believe are contributing to sinister health problems. For 12 years, Martin has lived next door alongside dozens of families in a yellow low-income housing complex with a basketball court and playground.
Located in the West Adams neighborhood of south Los Angeles, the drill site is surrounded by a senior’s home and a medical clinic for AIDS patients. Three schools stand a block away.
The site is wide open, allowing emissions to waft into the air. Martin’s apartment is about 200 feet from the wall. A sign on the gate reads: “Warning: this area contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
His wife was diagnosed with brain cancer and his granddaughter had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I think it’s all related to this sign,” he told EHN.
His granddaughter was eight when she had an operation to remove a tumor in her chest and endured chemotherapy. Her hair fell out, she felt nauseous and she was too exhausted to play with friends. Martin told her the oil site was to blame, and she asked him why they didn’t move. “This is low income, we got nowhere to go,” he said he told her.
She is now in remission, but his wife — his highschool sweetheart and spouse of 50 years — didn’t survive. “I sat there and held her hand and watched her die. That’s something I got to deal with the rest of my life.”
Like Martin and his neighbors, there are 40,000 oil fields globally with six million people living and working nearby, according to a 2019 study that found oil and gas development is associated with cancer, liver damage, immunodeficiency and neurological symptoms. Oil and gas development emits benzene and formaldehyde, both carcinogens. The drilling also emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas that increases global heating.
Los Angeles is home to the largest urban oil field in the U.S. and about 1,000 active oil and gas wells are sprinkled across the city, next to hiking trails, homes and schools. In Los Angeles County, half a million people live within 1,320 feet of more than 5,000 oil and gas wells, according to a 2014 report; and Latinx, African American and Asian American residents are more likely than white residents to live near oil and gas wells. Statewide, people of color made up 92% of the 1.8 million people living within a mile of an oil and gas site, the same report found.
Yet California is one of the few oil-and-gas-producing states without minimum distance requirements between homes and fossil fuel sites, according to a 2020 analysis. Maryland has the largest distance requirements, at 1,000 feet. Pennsylvania requires 500-foot setbacks from unconventional oil and gas wells. Arkansas has the smallest setbacks, at 100 feet. Other states, like Washington and New York, have banned fracking entirely.
Now, after more than a century of fossil fuel production in California, the tide is turning.
On Dec. 2, the Los Angeles city council passed an ordinance to phase out oil and gas drilling. In September, the Los Angeles County board of supervisors passed a similar ordinance to phase out drilling in unincorporated areas. In September, governor Gavin Newsom signed a law, SB-1137, that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2023, banning new oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet of homes and schools — the largest setback requirement of any state. The new laws recognize that fossil fuel extraction contributes to climate change while also harming residents who are primarily Black, Indigenous and people of color. The Biden administration has also promised funding to clean up drill sites.
The California Independent Petroleum Association is fighting the state law by gathering signatures for a petition to “Stop the Energy Shutdown.” In fact, the petition asks for a referendum on SB-1137, which could slow or stop the law.
Martin is skeptical that the new laws will have an immediate impact. While the city will no longer issue new drilling permits, some companies will have 20 years to wind down their activities.
“We’ll be long dead before they phase those sites out,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, stop it now.”
The Murphy Drill site is located just yards away from the St. Andrews Gardens apartment complex in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. Don Martin has been a resident of the apartments for the past 10 years.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Kdyn Childress, 6, rides her bicycle past the St. Andrews Gardens apartments in South L.A. The Murphy oil drill site, which operates active oil and gas wells, lies just a few hundred feet away from apartments.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
The Murphy oil drill site in South L.A. contains 22 active oil and gas wells and 7 injection wells.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
In the 1890s, oil drills began springing up in southern California, and by 1930, Los Angeles was producing nearly a quarter of the world’s oil, according to STAND-LA, an environmental justice coalition of community groups. Conventional oil has dwindled, but new techniques like fracking and acidization have enabled continued extraction.
The growth of oil and gas development has placed health hazards near millions of people: an estimated 17 million U.S. residents live within one mile of an active oil or gas well, according to a 2017 analysis.
In 2003, Jennifer Blue moved into a West Adams home two blocks from the Jefferson Site, operated by mining and energy firm Freeport McMoRan (in 2016 the company’s California assets were acquired by Sentinel Peak Resources) Like the Murphy Site, it was hidden behind a wall and shrubs, so she had no clue she lived near an active oil site. After a year, in 2004, she moved into the house where she now lives, located between the two drilling sites — 3,400 feet from the Murphy Site and 2,300 feet from the Jefferson Site.
Around 2012, her church began to fight the Jefferson Site. That’s when she learned that the chemicals in use behind the walls were linked to miscarriages. By then, she had experienced two miscarriages — one in 2008 and another in 2012. Her friends who lived nearby also suffered miscarriages.
“I remember just feeling a pit in my stomach and feeling simultaneously really sad and really angry,” she told EHN.
Severalstudies have linked oil and gas development to increased risk of birth defects, infertility and miscarriages. A 2016 review of the literature found moderate evidence for increased risk of miscarriage, prostate cancer, birth defects and decreased semen quality from exposure to oil and gas extraction.
Reproductive issues are not the only health effects associated with oil and gas production. Studies in Pennsylvania and Colorado have linked oil and gas extraction to higher risk of leukemia in young people.
Jennifer Blue at her home in South Los Angeles, California. Her active voice in the community has inspired others to share their experiences of developing health issues due to living close to oil wells.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Another study, co-authored by Jill Johnston, associate professor of population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, found that residents living less than 656 feet from and downwind of oil and gas development in Los Angeles’ Las Cienegas oil field had lower lung function. “We saw similar impacts to that of living with a smoker,” Johnston told EHN.
Another paper she co-authored found high methane concentrations near three oil and gas facilities and a natural gas pipeline in south Los Angeles. High levels of methane exposure can also cause nausea, vomiting, headaches and dizziness.
Johnston also recently published a study that examined the toenails of more than 200 Black, Latinx and Asian people living within one kilometer of the Las Cienegas oil field. She explained that when people are exposed to toxic chemicals, they can end up in different places in the body. “Toxic metals can deposit in toenails,” she said.
The results showed elevated levels of nickel, the most abundant trace metal in oil; and manganese, which is also linked to oil. Nickel exposure is associated with cancer and cardiovascular diseases and manganese is linked to neurological illnesses like Parkinson’s.
Johnston can’t say definitively that oil drilling caused toxic metals to accumulate in people, but when the two metals are found together, it can be a signature of oil.
“These exposures aren’t naturally found, typically, in the body, and so when they’re at elevated levels it could be a concern,” Johnston said.
Corissa Pacillas Smith and her children Jethro, 3.5 and Fen, 1, live less than a mile away from the active Murphy oil site in South Los Angeles.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
For five years, Corissa Pacillas Smith and her husband lived about 500 feet from the Jefferson Site, in south Los Angeles. She saw workers in Hazmat suits at the site mere feet away from people’s windows. She experienced headaches from rotten egg smells, diesel fumes and the noise of metal pipes repeatedly driven into the ground.
“You have these intense smells wafting right into my living room,” she told EHN.
Smith was one of a group of neighbors who came together to organize against the Jefferson Site and began documenting violations.
In 2016, EarthJustice filed a petition for abatement of public nuisance, which prompted a public hearing. In 2017, the city’s zoning department found the Jefferson Site in violation of its conditions. The company decided it was too expensive to comply, and halted operations. EHN sent a list of questions to Sentinel Peak Resources, E&B Natural Resources and the California Independent Petroleum Association about these and other issues, but received no response.
In 2017, city council president Herb Wesson introduced a motion calling on the city’s petroleum administrator to eliminate oil drilling in residential areas.
Years later, in December 2022, the resulting ordinance would amend the city’s municipal code to phase out oil drilling by immediately banning new oil and gas extraction and requiring cessation of all existing oil and gas operations within a 20-year period. The 20-year period will give operators time to recoup investments, however, the city is also studying whether it can shut down some wells sooner if operators recoup their investments earlier. The city is also drafting a policy that would require proper abandonment of wells and site remediation within three-to-five years of operations ending and the city says oil companies will shoulder that responsibility.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a similar measure for the unincorporated parts of the city. The proposed ordinance would ban new oil wells and production facilities and give existing projects 20 years to halt operations. It also establishes regulations for existing extraction, including site signage, comment and complaint logs, requirements for site maintenance, bonds of existing wells and standards for abandonment and restoration.
The state has a new oil drilling law, too. SB-1137, which comes into effect Jan. 1, 2023, prohibits the Geologic Energy Management Division in California’s Department of Conservation from approving any notice of intention from a fossil fuel operator within 3,200 feet of a “sensitive receptor,” which includes homes, schools and healthcare centers.
Residents in the South Bay area of Los Angeles witnessed a near catastrophic accident when an explosion occured at the Torrance Refinery in 2015.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Jethro Pacillas Smith, 3, plays with a toy car at his home in South L.A., located just a few blocks away from the Murphy oil drill site.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Beginning in 2025, the law will require oil and gas production facilities and wells within the 3,200 foot “health protection zones” to comply with health and safety requirements related to sound levels, dust and particulates beyond property lines, emissions and vapor venting, and chemical analysis of water resulting from operations. Operators within a health protection zone must submit leak detection and response plans to the state division by January 2025, and implement those plans by Jan. 1, 2027. Operators must also hold public workshops as part of developing their leak detection and response plans. Violation of these requirements would be considered a crime.
Both the city’s draft ordinance and the new state law recognize that oil drilling hazards primarily harm communities of color, but they do little to immediately alleviate environmental racism. The real impact of the new laws will be felt by BIPOC communities in Los Angeles 20 years from now.
Rabeya Sen, director of policy at Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, one of the groups on the STAND-LA steering committee, has been involved in the fight against neighborhood drilling since 2014. Back then, the groups learned about the regulatory system and realized it was broken. “Because it was broken — whether by design or not — it was really putting industry profits over public health,” she told EHN.
She said the city ordinance passed on Dec. 2 was a “huge victory” for the community, but she had mixed feelings. As they celebrated, STAND-LA also called on city council members to resign for racist remarks on a recently published recording. “This one policy is one piece of so much more that the city has to do to really advance racial justice,” Sen said.
“It’s a start,” she said of the new city ordinance, acknowledging that it will take time before it has an impact. “I think 20 years is too long.” But she added that the city is studying amortization. “Our sincere hope is that they will find that the phase out needs to be much shorter than the current 20 years.”
Between nuisance abatement laws shutting down individual sites and the city ordinance phasing out drilling long term, she said one is not better than the other — the strategies work in concert with each other. She said STAND-LA set a goal in 2014 of creating a city where there was no oil drilling. That goal required long- and short-term strategies. “The nuisance abatement [laws] have been helpful because while we work toward this long term goal that took almost a decade, we still have to find ways to try to defend ourselves from the oil industry in the short term,” she said.
The Inglewood oil field in Los Angeles County produces nearly 2.5–3.1 million barrels of oil each year. It is considered the largest urban oil field in the United States and more than one million people live within five miles of the site.
Credit: Nīa MacKnight
Nicole Deziel, associate professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, said there is no scientifically established distance that would keep people safe — studies have found health risks up to and more than 3,280 feet from oil and gas wells.
She called California’s 3,200-foot setback “a positive step for public health,” while adding that setbacks don’t remove the source altogether. “Eliminating new drilling and phasing out existing wells is also a very powerful tool.” She said removing oil wells will both protect public health and address climate change.
“It would be great for public health to see other states following California’s lead and re-evaluating their setback policies and whether or not their setbacks really reflect the current science,” she told EHN.
After shutting down the Jefferson site, West Adams residents are turning their attention to the Murphy site. They hope to use the nuisance abatement strategy to stop drilling, as they have documented a long list of violations and health hazards at the site over the past two years.
For now, extraction continues.
Blue said as long as the drill sites are operating, additional protections are needed. “Twenty years without any of the protections is just 20 more years of poisoning.”