By Megan Cole
Nearly four years ago, after exhaustively collecting soil samples from Santa Ana, California yards, parks and empty lots — spaces where people gather and children play — an Orange County-based journalist made a shocking discovery. The city of Santa Ana, Irvine’s neighbor to the north, was suffering from a slow and invisible crisis: soil-lead contamination. The journalist asserted that damaging levels of lead lurked underneath public and residential spaces all over the city, particularly in low-income communities of color. However, officials largely ignored the issue — until a team of local environmental activists and University of California, Irvine scholars stepped in.
Alongside the scientists, advocates and public health specialists working to mitigate the soil lead crisis, is Juan Manuel Rubio, a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCI. He has been tackling the questions of how lead got to Santa Ana, why it’s disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations, and how best to support those whose health and wellbeing have been impacted. Rubio is one of only two historians involved in the interdisciplinary mission to address soil lead pollution in Santa Ana — an ecological and humanitarian crisis that can’t be solved without an understanding of its deep historical roots.
“Lead is an epidemic that has been ravaging communities of color across the country — and the world — for a hundred years,” says Rubio. “It’s not only an ecological issue, but a historical issue as well.”
In 2018, after hearing of Santa Ana’s potentially dangerous lead levels, two local environmental activism groups — Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ) and Jóvenes Cultivando Cambios — partnered with UCI scientists to test more soil samples throughout the city. More than half of the 1,500 samples collected surpassed the level of lead deemed safe for children, who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, which can include weight loss, fatigue, vomiting, cognitive deficits, behavioral issues and educational delays. As a result of these findings, OCEJ launched the Plo-NO project (a play on plomo, the Spanish word for lead) in an effort not only to advocate for soil lead monitoring and mitigation, but to also promote health care and tenants’ rights for those affected.
When Rubio first heard of the effort to address the lead crisis, during an OCEJ membership meeting, he recalls thinking, “They need a historian. They need a historian to see what happened here, how we can explain this, and how we can approach this with mitigation strategies and potential litigation.”
Once Rubio became involved with Plo-NO, he began digitizing and analyzing historical maps of Santa Ana in order to identify the root causes of its current lead-pollution crisis. He discovered that areas with the highest concentrations of lead tend to overlap with old traffic patterns and roads built before the 1970s, when cars were fueled by leaded gasoline. Many of those traffic patterns have long since changed, but the lead they left behind still leaves a trace.
For Rubio, comparing historical and ecological maps to reveal the original sources of lead pollution is “like detective work. We have to investigate the ‘usual suspects’ for lead contamination: lead paint, gasoline, agriculture, and industrial emissions” in order to discover which are the culprits.
As a result of his work with the Plo-NO campaign, Rubio became the only historian on fellowship with Ridge 2 Reef, a UCI graduate-student training program that promotes interdisciplinary approaches to environmental challenges. Ridge 2 Reef Director Steven D. Allison, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, has since worked with Rubio on the Plo-NO campaign, one of many ecological projects that could benefit, Allison insists, from a historian’s unique insight.
“I’ve really become convinced that solving problems is not just the domain of scientists — in fact, scientists are not always going to be the most effective problem solvers, because a lot of the problems we’re solving are complex and require a perspective in history and culture,” says Allison. “If we’re going to get at root causes and the mechanisms that are driving these problems, then we have to listen to historians. We have to listen to community members who are living and making history as we speak.”
Rubio’s attention to interdisciplinary problem-solving could have implications far beyond Orange County. If he and the Plo-NO team are right about leaded gasoline being the main contributor to Santa Ana’s soil-lead contamination problem, that means that many cities across the U.S., particularly those with little soil renewal, could have inherited alarming levels of soil lead from leaded gasoline’s heyday in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. The team’s hypothesis challenges the dated assumptions that present lead paint as the main cause of lead poisoning — assumptions that survive in institutions like the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, remediation companies, and lead-prevention branches. Failing to understand how history produced these environmental issues, Rubio argues, will lead us only to ineffective solutions.
For instance, one incorrect assumption that is “really puzzling,” Rubio explains, is that when it comes to eliminating lead pollution, “the official emphasis continues to be on nutritional habits and household objects as the main sources of lead poisoning.” California’s lead prevention branch, for instance, warns citizens against certain imported candies and spices, contaminated pottery, lead pipes and peeling paint — all, Rubio says, “placing so much burden on residents and homeowners and parents” rather than the real culprits: “capitalism, the politics of science, and the subtle and overt workings of environmental racism.”
"This is why I admire OCEJ's work," Rubio says. "Because they do not approach the lead crisis as an individual health issue, but rather as an environmental disaster produced systemically over many decades."
Rubio, who will graduate this June, hopes to spend his career as a historian untangling historical and ecological issues within the growing field of environmental humanities, which examines the human and cultural dimensions behind ecological issues. From heavy metal pollution to drought to climate change, historians can provide the invaluable context needed to understand environmental histories and implement effective, equitable solutions.
To this end, Rubio recently launched a podcast series about the Plo-NO project and the history of lead contamination that invites listeners to become “active participants in solving the mystery behind pollution maps” while discovering the history of lead and lead poisoning in the U.S. He hopes the podcast will better inform the public and the academic community on this issue — and further, hopes that greater awareness will lead to greater action, as it has for him.
“As scholars, we do have a moral obligation to interact with the communities around us and pursue projects with local meaning, with local impact,” says Rubio. “It is important that we’re engaged intellectuals and scholars — that we not only produce scholarship, but also make it work for society.”