From polluted town to environmental mapping model

Karlaine Francisco was eight years old when she learned she had asthma. And that came as no surprise for a kid growing up in a Filipino immigrant neighborhood in South Stockton, California.

"I grew up in school with everyone having asthma. It was not something rare for everyone. I was like 'Oh I have it. I'm like everyone else now.'"

It wasn't until California began making environmental data available through an online mapping tool that residents of Stockton’s Little Manila – wedged between highways and industry - realized their neighborhood suffered high air pollution and groundwater contamination.

"We all grew up by the port and we all grew up by charter way, which is by the five and four and by all these factories that have all these toxic pollutants in the air. It's like second nature to us."

The state’s mapping tool that helped the 17-year-old high school senior realize the disparities in the impact of air pollution is now a model for President Joe Biden’s administration’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan.

The White House wants to channel billions into neighborhoods around the country such as Little Manila. Just one week into his presidency, Biden ordered that 40% of clean energy investment go toward such communities.

To flag those hot spots, which often also suffer higher unemployment and poverty rates, Biden called for the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its mapping tool.

But that will require a major overhaul. An EPA official told Reuters the current federal tool – from 2009 - does not draw on public health and socioeconomic data, and does not attempt to gauge levels of need.

During the Trump administration, which proposed scrapping the EPA environmental justice budget, agency members worked on their own time to maintain the tool.

Now, environmental justice advocates hope the EPA will learn not just from California’s successes but from its shortcomings. Some rural areas lack data on pesticides and water, and nowhere does the state track impact by race.

But for Little Manila, state data helped the community to secure $100,000 for a program to teach asthma sufferers how to examine and manage air filters.

And for Francisco, she learned how to manage her illness and adapt her lifestyle, ditching outdoor sports for indoor volleyball and figure skating.

"When I became more educated on these factors of like, oh, you have asthma because of this reason, I was like, maybe this is the reason why I have it."

Video Transcript

- Karlaine Francisco was eight years old when she learned she had asthma, and that came as no surprise for a kid growing up in a Filipino immigrant neighborhood in South Stockton, California.

KARLAINE FRANCISCO: I grew up in school with, like, everyone having asthma. It was not, like, something rare for everyone. So I was, like, oh, I have it. You know, that's-- like, I'm like everyone else now.

- It wasn't until California began making environmental data available through an online mapping tool, that residents of Stockton's Little Manila, wedged between highways and industry, realized their neighborhood suffered high air pollution and groundwater contamination.

KARLAINE FRANCISCO: Like, I would tell people, oh, yeah, I have asthma. And then, like, my next friend would be like, yeah, I have asthma too. And we all grew up in South Stockton, and we all grew up by the port, and we all grew up by Charter Way, which is by the five and the four, and by all these factories that have all these toxic pollutants in the air. It's kind of like a second nature to us.

- The state's mapping tool that helped the 17-year-old high school senior realized the disparities in the impact of air pollution is now a model for President Joe Biden's administration's $2 trillion infrastructure plan. The White House wants to channel billions of dollars into neighborhoods around the country, such as Little Manila.

Just one week into his presidency, Biden ordered that 40% of clean energy investment go toward such communities. To flag those hot spots, which often also suffer higher unemployment and poverty rates, Biden called for the Environmental Protection Agency to upgrade its mapping tool.

But that will require a major overhaul. An EPA official told Reuters, the current federal tool from 2009 does not draw on public health and social economic data, and does not attempt to gauge levels of need. During the Trump administration, which proposed scrapping the EPA environmental justice budget, agency members worked on their own time to maintain the tool.

Now, environmental justice advocates hope the EPA will learn not just from California successes, but from its shortcomings. Some rural areas lack data on pesticides and water, and nowhere does the state track impact by race. But for Little Manila, state data helped the community to secure $100,000 for a program to teach asthma sufferers how to examine and manage air filters. And for Francisco, she learned how to manage her illness and adapt her life style, ditching outdoor sports for indoor volleyball and figure skating.

KARLAINE FRANCISCO: When I noticed when I became more educated on these factors of like, oh, you have asthma because of this reason, I was like, maybe this is the reason why I have it.