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They were born thousands of miles apart and raised in different cultures, but Ana Mascareñas and Teni Adewumi both saw toxic environments affecting their communities and are now determined to make things right.
RAISED IN NEW MEXICO by a family that included three generations of California farmworkers, Ana Mascareñas grew up with a clear understanding of the harsh conditions farmworkers faced – be it from labor exploitation, heat stress, or exposure to potentially dangerous pesticides. “My mom instilled in me the belief that we all deserve a healthy environment, including people who work hard every day to make sure we have the services and food we need,” Mascareñas says. “She set me on my career path, although I didn’t know I would end up working on these issues so directly.”
From 2008 to 2013, Mascareñas worked for Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, ultimately as policy and communications director. As one of only five staff members for the nonprofit environmental health organization, she was charged with informing the medical community and policy makers about toxic threats, promoting safer practices, and assisting community-based organizations in their efforts to engage in public health and environmental advocacy.
“Being part of conversations with experts on toxic exposures was eye-opening,” Mascareñas says. “These exposures affect everyone, but there is a lot of evidence that low-income and communities of color bear the highest burden because of where they tend to live and work. People who are exposed to toxic chemicals in the workplace and in their communities understand that this is a major concern, but even in the face of compelling evidence, translating those concerns into health-protective policies is a challenging task that takes a lot of focused people committed to staying up on the science and communicating with the media and decision-makers.”
Mascareñas did her part, with considerable success. Most notably, she helped to coordinate a statewide coa- lition of more than 20 public health, firefighter, environmental, and consumer advocacy groups in a successful fight to revise California’s flammability standard to eliminate the use of toxic flame-retardant chemicals in furniture products. A 1975 California law requiring that manufacturers load furniture foam with large amounts of flame-retardant chemicals had become the de facto national standard, but the chemicals had been shown to cause cancer and reproductive problems. Mascareñas was featured in interviews and coalition-work activities for the 2013 HBO documentary “Toxic Hot Seat,” which depicted the long and successful struggle against well-funded industry opposition.
“I really enjoyed collaborating with Ana,” says Dr. Arlene Blum, an environmental health scientist and executive director of the Berkeley, CA-based Green Science Policy Institute, who worked closely with Mascareñas to engage communities, scientists, media, and others on the issue. “Ana is a very caring and talented young woman with the leadership skills and character to contribute to large and positive changes for public health and environmental justice.”
Among the many environmental health scientists Mascareñas regularly consulted with in her work at Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles were two Fielding School faculty members, Drs. Richard Jackson and Hilary Godwin. In 2012, Godwin invited Mascareñas to deliver a guest lecture on environmental health advocacy for one of her courses. Interacting with Fielding School students and talking with Godwin convinced Mascareñas that she wanted to pursue a master’s degree at the school.
By the time Mascareñas returned a year later to speak to a new group of Godwin’s students, she had applied to be a student at the school. The same day she gave her lecture, Mascareñas learned that she had been admitted as part of the fall 2013 class. This spring, Mascareñas was appointed by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. to serve as assistant director for environmental justice at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.
WHEN TENI ADEWUMI landed an occupational health and safety internship at the Santa Ana, CA, medical manufacturing plant of the Fortune 500 company Medtronic, she thought it would be for three months. Adewumi stayed on for a year and a half, falling in love with the task of ensuring a safe working environment. Born in Lagos, Nigeria and heavily influenced by her mother, a registered nurse, Adewumi says that her return visits to her native country only reinforce her current interest. “There is an important intersection between our environment, our work, and our health,” she says. “That is what drew me to this field.”
With the encouragement of her mentor at Medtronic, Lisa E. Hong (MPH ’01), Adewumi decided to pursue her MS in industrial hygiene at the Fielding School where, through the nationwide Occupational Health Internship Program and the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health (UCLA-LOSH) program, she began working last summer with the South Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Black Women for Wellness on its Healthy Hair Initiative project. The project aims to raise awareness of the potential adverse health effects associated with certain products used at beauty salons in the African-American community, and to empower professionals and patrons to advocate for a healthier workplace.
“This is an industry that isn’t regulated, and many of the products include ingredients that are known to be possible carcinogens, endocrine destructors, or allergens,” Adewumi says. “These professionals are exposed both from using the products on themselves and from using them on their clients.”
Adewumi and another UCLA-LOSH intern, Esmeralda Ponce, have visited beauty salons in Inglewood and South Los Angeles, surveying workers to learn more about their occupational exposures and health concerns while compiling a list of some of the most frequently used products to determine what potentially harmful ingredients are being used. In focus groups involving the beauty care workers and consumers, they have gauged the interest in moving toward healthier hair salons with greener products.
The surveys have revealed the need for more education about health risks and the use of proper protective equipment. Adewumi found high rates of poor reproductive health outcomes among the workers, including miscarriages and uterine fibroids – outcomes that have been linked in research with the use of hair relaxer products. She heard horror stories of stylists who no longer had fingerprints after working with certain chemicals, as well as stylists coming down with respiratory disorders from inhaling the product fumes.
Adewumi is now participating in an effort to train interested stylists in the use of proper protective equipment, ensuring proper ventilation, and moving toward the creation of greener salons. She is also part of a push to pilot a Healthy Hair Salon program, starting in the City of Inglewood. Working with the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which is led by three Fielding School alumni and has established a Healthy Nail Salon program (see the autumn/winter 2014-15 issue of this magazine), Adewumi and her Black Women for Wellness colleagues are surveying consumers; they hope to build partnerships with members of the Inglewood City Council, and plan to approach salon owners to seek enrollment.
Black Women for Wellness executive director and founder Janette Robinson Flint explains that beauty salon workers are being targeted for education both because they are vulnerable to toxic exposures and because they can be powerful community ambassadors. “Everyone knows these beauticians and hair stylists inside of African-American communities,” she says. “If this group of professionals is empowered to share health knowledge, it has the potential to disseminate widely inside of our community.”
Of Adewumi’s contribution to the project, Robinson Flint adds: “Teni is ‘the ground troops.’ She is the one going from salon to salon asking questions, providing information, analyzing and acting on the data. Without her, this is all just theory.”
As she continues to pursue her MS at the Fielding School, Adewumi has stayed on as a staff member at Black Women for Wellness to see the work through. “Growing up I spent countless times in salons without ever thinking about the fact that the chemicals being used could cause health problems, and so did my family and friends,” she says. “It’s been a great experience to be able to work with some incredible women to try to improve their conditions.” •