Living in poverty, pollution can change everything – down to the molecular level

At 42, JePahl White’s life has been filled with surgery scars and misery. He needed two kidney transplants because the first one failed. He also had surgery for a cancerous kidney tumor. Then there was open-heart surgery.

He blames the kidney, cancer and heart problems on dirty air, contaminated water and life in a poverty pocket called west Fresno. And he’s not the only one who thinks people in west Fresno face disadvantages.

The state Environmental Protection Agency announced west Fresno is the most environmentally, socially and economically vulnerable place in California. In a forward-thinking piece of research, the state EPA found west Fresno is the most disadvantaged place among the state’s 8,000 voting precincts.

But, drawing on his own experience, White takes it a step further. He says west Fresno is causing serious illnesses that make people live with physical pain, expense, frustration and eventually heartbreak.

“Tonight, I’m going to kidney dialysis,” he said in an interview one evening last year. “My father died at 57 of kidney failure. I watched as my big, strong father wasted away. This is very personal to me.”

There have long been doubts about these kinds of claims. The inevitable questions: Couldn’t life-threatening problems simply be predetermined by genetics? Can you prove it isn’t just something you were born with? Can you prove the accumulation of environmental, economic and social pressures had anything to do with serious illness?

Scientists say they have evidence that many types of pressure can set the stage for disease. Over the last 15 years, many have come to believe that people are living shorter lives in areas with water and air problems, as well as social and economic pressures.

Pollution can alter people at the molecular level, says Christopher Gregg, who researches human genetics at the University of Utah. Blood tests and long analysis would be needed to confirm it in west Fresno and other troubled places in the San Joaquin Valley, but the science demonstrates such changes do take place, he says.

“Pollution can change gene expression,” says Gregg, who has not studied the central San Joaquin Valley’s problems, but agrees that research might be warranted here.

Gregg’s work involves the field of epigenetics, which focuses on the mechanisms that turn genes on and off in each cell. In human embryos, it is normal for these mechanisms to trigger changes that create natural cell differences, such as those between brain and liver cells.

But sometimes stresses like pollution, smoking, alcohol or poor diet can bring on other changes, such as repressing a characteristic that would fight the formation of tumors.

Epigenetics is not directly part of scientific investigations of why people in many small, rural areas of the San Joaquin Valley die up to 15 years sooner than city folks who live 10 or 15 miles away. The study is called “Place Matters for Health in the San Joaquin Valley.”

The state has focused on producing the groundbreaking CalEnviroScreen, an extensive, data-driven process to show the most environmentally vulnerable places.

The screening tool will guide California policy and planning toward cleaner businesses while helping funnel money to the most troubled and disadvantaged areas of color, such as largely African American west Fresno or Latino farmworker towns.

California is the first state in the nation to create such a tool.

Notable for problems

West Fresno’s problems became widely known around the state when the results were first released in 2013. The top 10 percent of most-vulnerable places was littered with poor, minority-dominated communities in Fresno, Tulare, Kern and Kings counties. Researchers have documented the Valley’s vulnerabilities before.

But west Fresno stands out, even in that list. Homes and apartments are gathered next to businesses, commercial developments and farming. Gang activity, drug use and poverty are obvious.

One obvious sore spot centers around a former landfill now used as a major park – not far from a controversial meat-processing plant and other industry. The park’s lawn is dead, and trash populates the shrubs. There are no tables or barbecue pits.

As the wind shifts, the odor from the nearby meat-rendering plant drifts over the barren mound. Homes and apartments were built only hundreds of yards away. Weeds grow through cracks in the street.

Combined with contaminated well water and Fresno’s notorious bad air, activists have called it a showcase of political neglect.

But the San Joaquin Valley’s disadvantaged areas are not just happening in Fresno. They’re also found in sparsely populated, rural areas amid millions of farm acres.

Pesticides and working conditions for farm laborers have been part of the discussion since the 1960s. Cesar Chavez organized the United Farm Workers and brought the cause to celebrity status.

By the 1980s and early 1990s, such issues tragically moved from fields to homes. Two small Valley towns – Earlimart in Tulare County and McFarland in Kern County – suffered through childhood cancer clusters. Outrage grew with each funeral for more than a dozen children.

Pesticide use was the chief suspect then, but state and federal investigators never found a connection. The drinking water, air and soil were tested and analyzed, and there was no trace of a chemical problem that could account for the cancer cluster.

But nobody was looking at impacts of all pollutants, stress and social factors.

Science in the last two decades has left little doubt about a link between cumulative pollution stresses and impacts on humans, especially children and the elderly.

Yet government regulation and policy in the United States are far behind the science in protecting people, says scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, who works for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental watchdog.

“There are examples of progress, especially in California,” she says. “But it has been more difficult at the federal level. The challenge has been translating what we know into the clunky way environmental assessments are done.”

West Fresno

JePahl and his brother, Bryson, 34, have their own way of translating west Fresno’s environmental impacts. They like to show a photograph of eight relatives – their father Paul, mother Sheila, five of Paul’s sisters and one of his cousins.

All but three of these west Fresno residents in the photograph are dead. None of the deceased relatives lived past 61. Two were in their late 40s when they died – one of breast cancer, the other heart and kidney failure.

The kidney and heart problems seemed the most common. JePahl says there was no family history of the problems until Paul’s grandfather moved four generations of the family to west Fresno from Oklahoma.

JePahl says he thinks he suffered from drinking the water in west Fresno at the North Avenue property where his great-grandfather Thomas Butler had a home and church. His father and mother moved out of west Fresno decades ago to raise their family in other parts of the city, but his babysitter was a west Fresno resident – his aunt, Wilhelmine Cook, who died at 50 from colon cancer.

“The water always had a weird taste,” says JePahl , who is a community organizer and social entrepreneur now. “When the farmers sprayed the grapes, my aunt would close the windows in the kitchen.”

Pollution aside, the deck may have been stacked in a different way against JePahl and his younger brother, Bryson, who also has had a kidney transplant. The offending changes might have passed to them from their father, Paul. It would explain a lot of the issues affecting the family, says Bryson, who is outspoken in his criticism of city leaders over the decades.

“That photo of our family is sad,” says Bryson, who now lives in Evanston, Ill., as he works on a doctoral degree at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. “Our community has been given over to industry – by failed and immoral decisions from our leaders.”

Leaders allowed west Fresno to become an industrial dumping ground, says activist Mary Curry, 85, who has lived in west Fresno for 63 years. But late last year, the Fresno City Council began the process of planning for a revitalized west Fresno over the next few decades.

Curry says such a plan has been a long time in coming. There is too much industrial and business activity mingled with housing. The center of her discontent has long been the meat packing business, owned by Darling International.

The business predated much of the development in the area, having been established in the early 1950s. It also was in the county before the city of Fresno annexed the area in the early 1970s. The company has made improvements over the decades, attempting to ease tensions with community members who complained about the smell and the operation.

But the business and residential living are not compatible, the activists say. Curry says she and many others have seen pieces of slaughtered animals on the roadway in the past. And the smell is beyond description, she says.

Activists filed a lawsuit over the operation, and their case entered mediation. Litigants are not allowed to discuss it publicly.

Curry says it’s not surprising west Fresno has to file lawsuits for protection. Communities dominated by African Americans on the fringe of cities have been neglected for a long time.

“It’s just a lot easier to put industry around the poor folks of color,” she says. “This happens all over the country. But west Fresno is the worst in California.”

A more recent flashpoint unfolded in the last few years. A Fresno developer obtained approval to plant almond trees in the west Fresno area at a place he named Mission Ranch. The vacant property was once a spot fancied by President Donald Trump to build luxury homes and a golf course, but that deal fell through.

The latest plan was for a local developer, Granville Homes, to farm 360 acres and wait for the opportunity to build homes as the housing market picked up. Activists objected, saying the irrigation system would lower the water table, and the farming would add pesticides and dust to the poor air quality of the region.

Darius Assemi, Granville president, defended the project, saying his almond orchard is a tranquil green space. He says the property previously had been a trash dump, abandoned to dirt bikers, dust and noise.

He adds that orchards are all around west Fresno and the rest of the Fresno-Clovis area, including more affluent parts of the city, such as northeast Fresno.

“We live in a farming community in Fresno and Clovis,” he says. “At some point after the city of Fresno invests in the west Fresno – things like new parks and road improvements – we will look at building homes. Right now, it is a beautiful almond orchard.”

Defenders of agriculture have said modern farming faces more regulation than ever in California. Precautions for pesticide use are among the most progressive in the United States.

Yet pesticide exposure is one of the factors considered by California EPA in determining a community’s vulnerability.

That’s because problems still happen, says John Faust of the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The chemicals involved are volatile and toxic, he says.

“Significant pesticide drift incidents do happen,” he says. “We do know exposures are occurring because residues are turning up in people’s bodies.”

In rural areas

Though pesticide use generally has declined over many years in California, the numbers are still eye-popping. Farmers used 94,000 tons of it in 2014, the most recent year documented by the state Department of Pesticide Regulation. Nearly 60,000 tons were applied in the San Joaquin Valley.

Nearby pesticide use is just one of 20 factors in the state’s CalEnviroScreen tool that sorts out the most vulnerable areas in California. Among the other factors are ozone and particulate matter – both of which are bad enough to place the Valley alongside Southern California’s South Coast air basin as the worst places in the country to breathe.

The Valley also is the worst place in California for groundwater contamination from nitrates, which come from fertilizers, sewage treatment, dairies and rotting vegetation.

Environmental justice advocates cheered when CalEnviroScreen was released in 2013, but they say it is not perfect.

One example: The tool says hazardous-waste vulnerability does not exist in Kettleman City, which for decades has been known nationally for its David-and-Goliath fight against the biggest hazardous waste landfill in the West. The Latino town is about four miles from the landfill.

CalEnviroScreen says the town is too far away from the facility to consider hazardous waste in its vulnerability equation. The tool says there is zero vulnerability for such waste.

“That’s ridiculous,” says Bradley Angel, director of San Francisco-based Greenaction, which has fought the hazardous waste landfill for many years. “No matter how long the fight goes, people continue to suffer in Kettleman City. Nothing is changing.”

Faust says Kettleman City is still considered a vulnerable place. The town is in the middle of poor air quality, pesticides and other problems in the region.

“The Kettleman City area is among the highest 10 percent for overall vulnerability in the tool,” he says. “It is identified as a disadvantaged community.”

Molecular mastery

Compared to the CalEnviroScreen tool, epigenetics might sound like science fiction. Instead of expansive databases of numbers, scientists are looking at individual cells that have six linear feet of spooled DNA within them. In this molecular universe, there are 50 trillion cells in just one human body.

But it’s no sci-fi show. Epigenetics has been an established science for many years. And in the last 15 years, it has been a hot item among researchers.

The science focuses on the genes encoded into the tightly compacted DNA spools – millions of these spools are compressed into each cell. The genes are instructions, telling each cell what it will become in the body.

“Think of a piano,” says neurobiologist Gregg of the University of Utah. “The DNA sequence is the keyboard, and the genes are the fingers on the keyboard.”

Epigenetics refers to chemical markers that tell the cell which parts of the DNA need to be unspooled and which ones don’t, scientists say. In other words, the chemical markers can either turn a gene off or on. If the wrong gene is in play, it can lead to disease and a shorter lifespan.

Geneticist Courtney Griffin of the University of Oklahoma says, “Epigenetic marks are profoundly important to our biology.”

The study of identical twins has helped in understanding epigenetics, since both twins are born with the same genome. Differences in such twins appear because of their reaction to their environments.

In the May 2 issue of The New Yorker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and cancer researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote about such differences.

“Chance events – injuries, infections, infatuations; the haunting trill of that particular nocturne – impinge on one twin and not on the other. Genes are turned on and off in response to these events, as epigenetic marks are gradually layered above genes, etching the genome with its own scars, calluses and freckles.”

One of the big questions emerging from this research: Can the changes created from the environment and stress be passed to the next generation in a family? Scientists call it “heritable changes occurring without changes in the DNA sequence.”

Geneticist Griffin says more research needs to be done on this part of epigenetics. She says such heritable changes clearly have been shown in mice. The changes in mice are long-lasting, she says, meaning they are passed to many generations.

But humans may be a little more flexible, she says. The change may only carry through one or two generations.

She says, “I think there is a sense of hope about the limits of heritable changes in humans.”

JePahl and Bryson White say they don’t know if their health issues were passed to them by their father or if it happened because their babysitter was in west Fresno. But they say one of those two scenarios played out in their lives.

Says JePahl: “We have been changed because our family lived in west Fresno. It’s not just a coincidence.”


Former Bee reporter Mark Grossi was a 2016 fellow for the Washington, D.C.-based Alicia Patterson Foundation. This is the second of a series of stories he wrote that focus on the San Joaquin Valley’s rural areas where people face environmental challenges.

Read some of Grossi’s reporting while he was at The Bee, archived on his blog: www.fresnobee.com/earth-log