By Hanna Kim
On Wednesday January 31st, in the Vita Nova Lecture Hall, the Leadership, Sustainability and Environments Justice Series of Engagement and Action had their series kick off with Dr. Bhavna Shamasunder, speaking to about 15 students all gathered in a circle of chairs. An associate Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy at Occidental College, Shamasunder teaches and conducts research on environmental health and justice, focusing on the disparate and cumulative burdens faced by communities of color and the impoverished communities. She received her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. Additionally, she holds a Masters in Environmental Studies from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Development Studies from the University of California, San Diego.
In her presentation, Dr. Shamasunder outlined her current projects that examine the health impacts from urban oil drilling in environmental justice neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the environmental and health impacts of beauty products today as well as how they target women of color with white-washed and westernized standards of beauty. The most gripping point she made was by outlining the “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” carried by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ in 1987. The study concluded that race was the single strongest indicator that determined where toxic waste facilities tended to be located across the United States. The study was later repeated 20 years later in 2007 and little has changed. This notion made the placement of these toxic waste facilities a racial justice issue. From here, Dr. Shamasunder discussed her own role in the Environmental Health Movement and posed some important questions that constantly drive her to pursue her work and research: “Whose voice matters, whose experiences matter, and why? [These questions] have driven me my responsibility to do my own research from the ground up,” by focusing on people on a microscopic level and their humanitarian concerns.
Dr. Shamasunder described her own work in the Los Angeles oil fields. Fields like Thums Island and Allenco Oil Field were designed in impoverished communities of color to be hidden from citizens’ view. Citizens then started to develop asthma, a common symptom of overexposure. Citizens in the community complained, but little was done about the issue until Barbara Boxer persuaded an EPA officer to come examine the sights. The officer consequently became sick on the sight of these oil fields and shut them down. However, these fields are about to be opened back up, causing fear and unrest among the community. Dr. Shamsunder reported her findings: “34% of households surveyed earned less than $10,000 near these oil fields. 45% didn’t know about the field. 65% of people didn’t know whom to call if they had these health issues from overexposure.” Citizens in the Los Angeles community have wanted a buffer zone from these oil fields as well as access to a renewable energy source.
The second part of Dr. Shamasunder’s line of research is the impact of beauty products on the environment and on the physical health of the consumers.
There are incredibly dangerous chemicals that are unregulated in our personal care products and that the burden is on the consumer to become sick first before having the chemical banned. This burden on the consumer was completely baffling to me. Even though animal testing is still extremely prevalent today, we as the consumers are the second line of test animals for these products and unregulated chemicals.
Dr. Bhavna Shamasunder’s presentation was completely eye opening for me. As someone born and raised in San Francisco, the city that has spearheaded the water conservation, Styrofoam free, and plastic bag fee movements, I held preconceived notions that California is exhibiting model behavior. Even Governor Jerry Brown, who is considered the “Environmental Governor,” holds inconsistent opinions on big oil and climate change, as he receives large donations from these big oil corporations.
While California has done our fair share in foregoing these movements, there is still ample work to be done as outlined by Dr. Shamasunder.
Photo Courtesy of the LA Times