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UCI Podcast: Uncovering the cause of the soil lead crisis in Santa Ana

UCI historian Juan Manuel Rubio partners with environmental justice groups on research

July 29, 2021
UCI Podcast: Uncovering the cause of the soil lead crisis in Santa Ana
On this episode of the UCI Podcast, Juan Manual Rubio, a Mellon Humanities Faculty Fellow, discusses the potential causes of the soil lead crisis in Santa Ana. Audrey Fong/School of Humanities

In Santa Ana, lead contamination in the soil has driven residents to organize and advocate for environmental justice. Researchers from UCI are working with them to assess the severity of the problem and identify solutions. Though lead contamination is frequently blamed on lead-based paint, a UCI historian’s research suggests another factor may be to blame.

In this episode of the UCI Podcast, Juan Manuel Rubio, a Mellon Humanities Faculty Fellow in the School of Humanities at UCI, discusses his historical research into the source of the lead contamination in Santa Ana, why historians should partner with scientists and how historical analysis can contribute to identifying systemic solutions.

In this episode:

Juan Manuel Rubio, a Mellon Humanities Faculty Fellow in the School of Humanities at UCI and former PhD student in the Department of History

Air, Metal and Earth, an audio documentary produced by Rubio that breaks down the causes of the lead contamination crisis in Santa Ana

Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ), a local multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environmental justice organization

¡Plo-NO!, a campaign to find solutions for the problem of lead in the soil in Santa Ana

Social and Spatial Distribution of Soil Lead Concentrations in the City of Santa Ana, California: Implications for Health Inequities,” a 2020 study published by a group of UCI researchers in the journal Science of The Total Environment

Risk Assessment of Soil Heavy Metal Contamination at the Census Tract Level in the City of Santa Ana, CA: Implications for Health and Environmental Justice,” a 2021 study published by a group of UCI researchers in the journal Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts

The hidden toxic threat in America’s backyards,” a 2017 ThinkProgress story exposing the soil lead crisis in Santa Ana

Urban children are playing in toxic dirt,” a 2017 ThinkProgress story highlighting the dangers of soil lead to children in Santa Ana

Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, a 2014 book about the history of lead science in the U.S.

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Transcript

AARON ORLOWSKI, HOST

No amount of lead exposure is safe for children, so in Santa Ana, the discovery of lead in the soil has prompted residents to become advocates for environmental justice. Alongside them are researchers from UCI who are helping to document the problem and identify solutions. Why is a historical perspective needed to determine the cause of this lead contamination? And how does reframing the narrative help communities advocate for systemic solutions?

From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski. And you’re listening to the UCI Podcast. Today, I’m speaking with Juan Manuel Rubio, who is a Mellon Humanities Faculty Fellow at UCI.

Juan, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

JUAN MANUEL RUBIO

Thank you, Aaron. It’s really great to be here.

ORLOWSKI

So you’ve been working with community groups and other researchers at UCI to document the levels of lead contamination in Santa Ana and to find solutions to the problem. So what is the magnitude of this problem of lead contamination in the soil and homes of families in Santa Ana?

RUBIO

Ok, so to give you an idea, this study collected 1,500 samples across the city of Santa Ana and nearly half of these samples surpassed 80 parts per million. And that is a good number to keep in mind because that is the standard that the California Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment has set as a very basic standard for considering the amount of lead that can be safe, especially for children in the soil. We’re talking about a large portion of the samples showing concerning levels of lead in the soil. And the study also found very, very high values right around the city center, 2,600 parts per million. And that is roughly 30 times the standard that I was talking about. It varies in terms of where these samples were located and where these values were found. These samples were taken next to houses, next to public buildings, at parks, next to the roads, on people’s yards. So we’re studying and trying to break down the distribution of these values across these different categories.

ORLOWSKI

It might be useful to talk for a second about why is lead in the soil problematic, and especially for children. I mean, because as adults, we don’t often think about sticking our hands in the dirt, but I assume it’s quite different when you’re a child.

RUBIO

Yeah, of course. And I must say, from the get-go, that the science, the latest science, has shown that there are no safe levels of lead in the soil. And the reason why scientists are saying that is because very low amounts of lead in the blood of children can negatively affect their development. And it can produce, for example, attention deficit disorder and developmental issues. And, we’re talking about, again, very low levels of lead. Of course, if that amount of lead goes up in children’s systems, (it) can cause physical symptoms of poisoning that although they can be treated, the impact of chronic exposure is long term and can affect the lives of these kids as they grow up. And of course lead can also produce harm to adults, but we’re talking about children specifically because of this particular vulnerability that they have in terms of their development.

ORLOWSKI

So how did you first become aware of this lead crisis in Santa Ana?

RUBIO

Well, I was in a membership meeting with this organization called Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ). And one of their campaigns was a campaign called ¡Plo-NO!, which is wordplay with the word in Spanish plomo, which means lead. And I remember hearing about this and of course being quite surprised at the numbers that they had found in Santa Ana. And one of the first things that I said to the director at the time was, “You need a historian. You need a historian.” I mean, of course I’m biased. But the first thing that popped in my head was like, what happened here? Like how is this connected to industry? What is the history that explains this environmental crisis? And so that’s how I got involved more deeply with the campaign and that led eventually to the history project that we’re developing today. And we’ve been working on for over a year.

ORLOWSKI

So what has Orange County Environmental Justice been doing about this issue and how has this ¡Plo-NO! campaign unfolded?

RUBIO

So this is a very important partnership and it’s a partnership that is really anchored in what community advocates called community-based science. And that means that the community, in a way, is involved in producing the questions that the community wants to answer, and then partnering with scientists, in this case, people from UCI Public Health. And this partnership really started after a reporter from ThinkProgress in 2017, basically was investigating something else. She was investigating immigrant justice issues, particularly youth being deported in Santa Ana. And she came across a lot of cases of young adults having developmental issues or learning challenges. And so she took it upon herself to go out and test the soil in Santa Ana with a portable XRF machine. And she found these very concerning concentrations. That then became basically the alarm that was raised. It became a rallying cry for OCEJ and UCI to partner together and do, and conduct, a more thorough study of the soil and the city. And that of course developed during 2018 and 2019. And there have been already several publications that this group from UCI in OCEJ has published.

ORLOWSKI

We’ll definitely include those links in the show notes for this episode. So the first goal was to determine the extent of the problem. Is the coalition also looking at getting help with remediation to try and actually reduce these levels of lead in the soil?

RUBIO

Yeah, that is correct. So after the data was processed and analyzed, shortly after, we started a conversation with the city of Santa Ana and the healthcare agency in Orange County to basically discuss the issue, but also incorporate policy to address it, of course. And there are several policy recommendations that we’ve been working on, including lead testing, testing for the blood of people, like lead testing in the bodies of people, but also soil lead testing. Soil testing that can be publicly accessible for residents of Santa Ana to request from the city, if they want to know whether their property is safe. And we have also been working on things related to protections for tenants, because of course, this is a social issue and OCEJ is trying to approach it as such. So when a resident decides to request testing and request remediation, we want to make sure that that tenant is protected.

ORLOWSKI

But so you’re a historian. And so you approached this through a unique lens. What have you learned about the causes of this lead accumulation in Santa Ana?

RUBIO

When we started thinking about where this lead was coming from, we had certain hypotheses. And you may be familiar with some of them: smelter pollution, manufacturing, plants, and lead paint. But I was, as I was reading the history of lead, I realized that gasoline was a major source of lead contamination in the 20th century. And this was because in 1923, the Ethyl Corporation, which was founded by General Motors, Standard Oil and DuPont, they decided to produce this new brand of gasoline that contained lead, even though there were alternatives to lead, for basically reducing the knocking problem in engines. There was already science that pointed to the dangers of lead for bodily systems in general and for the environment as well. Throughout the 20th century, we continued to use leaded gasoline everywhere in the world, to the extent that in the 1980s an EPA study found that about half of the lead that was being produced globally was being released as contamination. We’re talking about 1.6 million metric tons in the 1980s and gasoline was responsible for at least three quarters of that. There you can see that there’s something, like there’s an elephant in the room, that we haven’t addressed fully when we’re talking about lead and lead contamination and lead poisoning.

But I also learned about how much our public health apparatus worked under the assumption that lead paint is the main source of lead contamination and lead poisoning. You know, leaded paint was gradually phased out after the 1940s and gasoline was the major outlet for the lead industry after the 1940s. There’s only a few studies that have really addressed gasoline as a major source of environmental lead. So basically we wanted to interrogate the case of Santa Ana as an environmental crisis, not so much as, you know, a collection of individual homes that had a lead paint issue potentially.

ORLOWSKI

So if one of the huge sources of lead in the environment is gasoline and the burning of that gasoline in cars, did you guess or hypothesize that potentially there would be more lead near roads and freeways?

RUBIO

Yeah, correct. So we wanted to test the hypothesis that car emissions throughout the 20th century were responsible for the depositing lead on the soil. So we looked at old maps of Santa Ana and old photographs and we digitized them. We basically uploaded them to a GIS software that allows us to geolocate those old maps and basically put them as a background to the data that we had about soil lead. And then we created layers to draw up the different roads across time. And then we measured that, we analyzed that, against the soil lead data. We did find, for example, that old roads are better predictors of soil lead concentrations than current roads or traffic volume data from today, by a lot. That means that there’s something about the history of the city that is pointing to the older parts of town, and specifically roads, being related to the soil lead concentrations that we see today.

The downtown area was very much a point through which many cars went through in the 1940s and 1950s and 60s. Actually, if you look at old roadmaps suggesting what are the main routes to take across California, you see that the way in which people would get from LA to San Diego would be through Sant Ana. This is because this was prior to the 1960s, there was no Route 5 and there was no PCH, no Route 1. So you would go through Fullerton, La Habra, Santa Ana, and then go down to Oceanside and down to San Diego. That means that potentially many cars went through downtown Santa Ana. However, though, old Santa Ana is also where old buildings were and are still today. So what we’re trying to parse out is, what is the difference? What is contributing to soil lead? Is it car emissions in the past, or is it old buildings that potentially had lead paint?

ORLOWSKI

So this is the type of perspective that a historian can bring to a project that might normally be considered a public health project or an environmental science project. But having the historical perspective can really allow you to figure these types of things out and get into more detail about the cause of a problem.

RUBIO

Yeah, absolutely. It allowed us to not only generate data, but also an understanding of the processes that can explain how this crisis was produced.

ORLOWSKI

So you’re also producing an audio documentary. So why did you decide to produce this audio documentary about lead in Santa Ana?

RUBIO

I think we needed a mechanism for telling that story, a story that is about how lead was released to the environment and how we managed to keep releasing it, even after we knew that it was a toxic substance. I build on the work of historians who have shown that the lead industry actually played a major role in not only extracting and commercializing lead, but also promoting these products and hindering the science about lead that was showing that lead was toxic and a danger to public health. I also point to the flaws of past and present public health institutions, who have mostly addressed the shoe as an individual problem, as opposed to an environmental or social issue. For example, some of the current and past efforts for preventing lead really focus on educating the public about where you could find lead in your home. And they typically point at leaded paint, paint chips, but also spices from India that may contain lead, or Mexican candy or pottery. And they put a lot of the burden on parents to watch out for these objects and basically protect their kids in this kind of individualized fashion.

And also the mechanisms of intervention after lead was found in a child are very much individualized. You know, they’re focused on monitoring the individual case of lead poisoning that was found and reported, and then addressing potential sources after the fact. But they’re not trying to understand where the lead is in environment and how we can get rid of it, so that no kids get poisoned in the first place. So I guess the broader argument that I’m trying to make in this podcast is that the reasons why we have lead in the soil in our cities connects to the history of global capitalism. And it’s also an environmental justice issue because there are systems of discrimination and systems of neglect and abandonment that have made this crisis substantially worse for communities of color and poor folks

ORLOWSKI

You’re kind of looking at this global issue through the lens of Santa Ana and zooming out to see how everything interconnects beyond just one city in Southern California.

RUBIO

This crisis in Santa Ana, we’re trying to understand it, but if we’re right about some of the things that can explain lead in our environment, in our cities, and even small cities as in Santa Ana, that means that this is a more widespread problem. And we’re also looking at a manufactured crisis, if you will, because this was preventable. It was manufactured quite literally in the sense that the history of industry has a lot to do with how lead got there and how it was not addressed as an issue a hundred years ago. It could have been a hundred years ago that we prevented this crisis.

ORLOWSKI

And as you mentioned earlier, this idea of putting the burden on the individual to prevent contamination in their household, that kind of absolves the bigger players that have caused a real systemic issue. And if it’s a systemic issue, then we need a societal solution, not just to, you know, watch out for the types of spices that you’re bringing into your home.

RUBIO

That is correct. And that is how we’re trying to reframe the conversation. That is what we keep bringing up in our conversation with the city and the county, and I think we are making progress and we are, in a way, also helping OCEJ organize because by restructuring the narrative, you get a more powerful political solution. One of the goals that I have for this podcast is that hopefully is of some use for organizations like OCEJ, which want to use material, historical material, in their organizing efforts, in their organizing schools and workshops, so that they can frame this issue as an environmental crisis, again, that was manufactured and that it connects directly with histories of environmental racism and injustice.

ORLOWSKI

So ultimately this kind of historical work and the science, that you’re also partnering with scientists at UCI, can serve communities as they’re trying to solve these problems and make life better for everyone who lives there.

RUBIO

This is a way in which history can be very valuable, not just to scientific efforts, but also to public advocacy efforts, and to the people that actually live in Santa Ana, that hopefully by doing this historical analysis, they can understand the situation better. They can, again, organize and they can demand a more systemic solution to the problem.

ORLOWSKI

Juan, thank you so much for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.

RUBIO

Well, thank you, Aaron. It was really great to be here.