By: Emily Nguyen, CHEJ Science & Technical Fellow

There is no such thing as a natural disaster. This is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my academic career. While this phrase may be referring to droughts, hurricanes, and the like, its message is equally relevant to communities that have lived with toxic pollution for decades. Disasters and crises don’t decide who lives and who dies, society does. This has nothing to do with chance, but everything to do with ethnicity, race, and socioeconomic status. Similarly, who gets to live in a house with lead-based paint and who doesn’t is dictated by generations of racist environmental and housing policies. There’s nothing “natural” about that.

In California’s Santa Ana community, low-income and Latino families have been disproportionately impacted by soil lead contamination for decades. Despite leaded gasoline and lead-based paint being banned over the past 25-40 years, their toxic effects continue to plague predominantly minority communities.

Studies have shown that Latino and low-income children are among the most at risk of high blood lead levels, due to disproportionate lead exposures from living in older lead-contaminated homes, urban areas, and near industrial contamination sites. The developmental consequences of these toxic inequalities are most evident in the academic achievement gaps of Latino children compared to their white peers in the Nation’s Report Card.

In Santa Ana, a recent University of California Irvine (UC Irvine) study found that over 50% of the 1,500 soil samples gathered from residential homes were above what the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deems safe (80 ppm). Researchers also estimated that 12,000 kids within these neighborhoods have been exposed to lead concentrations exceeding the US EPA’s 400 ppm federal limit for children’s residential play areas. Furthermore, neighborhoods with average median household incomes under $50,000 showed lead soil samples levels 440% higher than areas with median household incomes above $100,000.

As UC Irvine historian Juan Manuel Rubio asserts, Santa Ana’s rampant racial disparities in lead contamination are nothing short of a “manufactured crisis”; in other words, something that could have easily been prevented. Instead, decades of systemic racism in housing policies, coupled with crumbling infrastructure and aging housing stock have left residents with few options but to bear the consequences of a system rigged against them.

The first step towards effecting meaningful change for these vulnerable communities is recognizing and addressing the existing social inequalities that rendered them vulnerable in the first place. Much like natural disasters, these victims aren’t randomly selected. Every day, these individuals are chosen because of their location, economic conditions, and lack of sociopolitical power. They suffer and endure these crises because of deliberate decisions made by society. So, thousands of minority families in Santa Ana being subject to decades of toxic soil is anything but “natural.”

Photo Credit: Daniel A. Anderson/Grist