Breathing is something people should be able to do without having to think about what they are inhaling. Unfortunately, this is not the case for some San Joaquin Valley residents. The San Joaquin Valley is an integral part of the nation’s agricultural output, but according to a recent study by UC Davis titled “Land of Risk/Land of Opportunity,” it is also an area of great risk when it comes to environmental hazards like air pollution and water quality.
“The San Joaquin Valley has many sources of air pollution in it. It has freeways and industrial agriculture that, combined with the topography of the valley being a big bowl and the hot weather, causes problems,” said Jonathan London, director for the Center for Regional Change at UC Davis.
According to London, the air in the region does not have the chance to circulate. He said the smog becomes trapped as a result of the heat and the topography of the region, which means the pollution gets progressively worse.
“It creates an intense oven of pollution,” London said.
With all of this pollution, London and his colleagues mapped and identified areas in the valley that are more prone to feeling the effects of the pollution.
“We did community mapping, where we identified areas in neighborhoods that needed help, sites which the government was not working on,” London said. According to the report, nearly one-third of residents are in highly vulnerable areas.
He said that public agencies need to work together across various kinds of issues and need to be able to focus their efforts to solve these problems.
“They need to be much more collaborative not just amongst themselves, but they need to be much more collaborative with communities,” London said.
According to London, the primary implication of the study is that communities that are affected by environmental hazards tend to be affected by multiple sources.
“We need to pay more attention to these places and more attention to monitoring the situations,” London said. “There needs to be investment in clean technologies, as well as in human and social infrastructure, so that the communities have more of a voice and aren’t just passive.”
Tara Zagofsky, a doctoral student in human geography at UC Davis and collaborator in the report, said that the study can help prioritize the communities that need the most help and find ways for better collaboration.
“This is the land of opportunity; it has some of the most productive agricultural lands on the planet, but many of the people in this region have to confront environmental contamination,” Zagofsky said. “This report is about moving forward and doing things about it.”
She said that there is a common understanding that everyone is affected equally, which is not the case. According to Zagofsky, the report is important because it allows for distinction and understanding for who is most affected.
“People of color, people in poverty and people who have low formal education, low English fluency or low medical support are the most vulnerable,” Zagofsky said.
Zagofsky said that the study revealed that 82 percent of people in areas of high vulnerability are non-whites. People who are socially vulnerable have the least resources to communicate their problems.
“People might not have the resources to seal their homes, or lack the language proficiency to advocate for their communities,” Zagofsky said. “We’re hoping that this report will lead to coordinated action.”
Sarah Sharpe, of the Fresno Ministry and coordinator of the San Joaquin Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Project, said that the results are alarming in terms of how many people are at elevated risk.
Sharpe said that the San Joaquin Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Project plans to create an online, more accessible monitoring and reporting system of environmental hazards. She said that she is pleased that UC Davis and Jonathan London figured out a way to do the research.
“There aren’t many researchers who want to focus on this region. We were lacking the research and exploration to make a change,” Sharpe said. “This gives us academic, rigorously-tested tools that prove that there are pockets that are more vulnerable.”
ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.