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    • Ana Mascarenas headshot

In Pursuit of Environmental Justice


ANA MASCAREÑAS (MPH ’15) was still a student in FSPH’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences when she attended a meeting at Resurrection Church in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. She had received notices in the mail: Her East Los Angeles community was affected by arsenic, lead and other pollutants from a facility more than a mile away.

students learn how to test for lead
As part of the workforce for environmental restoration in communities program, residents learn how to test for lead in paint and oil.

That facility is the former site of Exide, a battery recycling plant forced to close its doors in Vernon, California. Soil sampling tests have shown that lead from Exide’s operations reached a 1.7-mile radius around the facility. Many yards have been found to have lead in excess of 400 parts per million (ppm), and will be cleaned up by the state over the next several years. California’s health-based screening level is 80 ppm. Research has found that beyond this limit, toddlers playing in bare dirt in local yards risk losing IQ points from the exposure. “We know that lead can cause learning and behavior problems and slow growth and development in children,” Mascareñas says.

As the first assistant director for environmental justice at the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Mascareñas is a leader in the state’s effort to restore trust in historically marginalized communities by addressing issues of environmental health and justice. In 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Mascareñas to help lead the path forward in working more closely with residential communities and Native American tribes; then in 2016, $176 million was authorized for the lead cleanup project around the former Exide site, the largest of its kind in California history. “We’re making an unprecedented investment,” Mascareñas says. “It’s a statement that these historically marginalized communities deserve fast action.”

In addition to the cleanup, Mascareñas is identifying policy gaps that allow for disproportionate pollution burden in communities like the ones affected by Exide. Other initiatives aim to bring immediate and longterm benefits to people in the community, including a partnership with the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program that provides local workforce training in conjunction with the cleanup effort. Through the Workforce for Environmental

Restoration in Communities program, underemployed residents in the communities surrounding Exide have received pre-employment and job placement assistance, as well as certifications in lead sampling and hazardous waste operations.

For Mascareñas, the desire to address the disproportionate harm to marginalized  communities from pollution is rooted in the history of her own family, which includes three generations of California farmworkers. “Stories of my family’s experience moved me to public health,” Mascareñas says. “My mother moved from migrant camp to migrant camp, being powdered down with DDT as a child — actions that may have had an impact on her health over the years. So having the privilege to work in environmental protection, and being part of this growing recognition that government should be striving for environmental justice in the work that we do, is really inspiring to me.”