By Regina Ip
The United States and Mexico share a 2000-mile border where a population of 9 million is growing more than twice as fast as the populations of U.S. and Mexico.
Despite this growing population, the border region is confronted with many environmental health issues because of the lack of clean drinking water and proper health care. Even more, five out of the seven poorest communities in the country is in the border region. More than 35 percent of its population is living in poverty.
The living conditions in the area are in dire need of help. From weak social communities to inadequate building infrastructures, where there is no running water, sewage systems or electricity, the U.S.-Mexico border region faces many detrimental environmental health issues that cannot be fixed with the shortage of health care professionals or the stigma associated with the area.
“Almost everywhere you go in this world, there are people or groups of people that experience environmental injustices,” Paula Stigler said. “They are often low-income and people of color who do not have a voice and therefore are exposed unjustly to contamination in both their community and their workplaces.”
Stigler, who is the environmental program manager and tribal liaison for The San Diego Foundation, has been working on environmental issues, like water monitoring, with indigenous communities in San Diego County and Mexico for about ten years.
She has worked with various people including tribal health community promoters in remote tribal communities in Baja CA Mexico, local San Diego tribal environmental programs, communities in Cañon de los Laureles (Goat Canyon) in Tijuana and elsewhere.
Currently, Stigler is earning her doctorate in global health at UCSD/SDSU. She is currently interested in studying how climate change and its policies will affect susceptible populations in the border region.
The severity of the environmental health problems parallels those found in Third World countries. In addition to the underrepresented communities in the border region, many other residents are living in poor conditions. In some cases, there is no clean water for food, like drinking and cooking, or for hygienic purposes like bathing and washing. Even more, there is no basic sewage system to maintain wastes.
Because of this, residents have a much higher chance of catching waterborne and infectious diseases, such as salmonella infections, mosquito-transmitted malaria, measles and tuberculosis. Considered as a place where many people from different countries pass through often, about an average of 1.6 million per day, the health of those living in the border region confronts a national concern.
According to Stigler, some of the border cities do not follow safe air standards. Hazardous waste is a big problem as the border region becomes more industrialized.
New River, which runs down the inland region of Southern California, is the most polluted river in the United States. It has more than 100 industrial chemicals and 76 million liters of raw sewage passes through the river each day.
The rate of tuberculosis is twice the national rate. The rate of Hepatitis A is three times the rate of United States’ and two times the rate of Mexico’s. Salmonella and shigella dysentary is four times the rate of U.S. and Mexico.
Stigler develops workshops and speaks at community meetings on how residents can protect themselves from harmful contaminants in drinking water and in the environment. At these workshops, she calls attention to problems like poor drinking water.
“When looking at exposure to poor drinking water, it’s often a concern for waterborne pathogens and dehydration from gastrointestinal problems,” Stigler said. “This is especially problematic for children and the elderly. Since environmental health deals with so many different issues [like] air, trash, food, water, there are many health concerns [such as] cancer from exposure to dangerous chemicals, asthma from poor air quality [and] lead poisoning from exposure to lead in homes.
Stigler said that the current methods to solve the problem of poor water resources are not enough.
“Drinking water infrastructure was brought to communities in Mexico, however after assessing the decrease in gastrointestinal problems within the communities, my research found that the water was still contaminated due to unsafe storage practices in the homes and a lack of disinfection in the system.”
Stigler has formed the Tribal Environmental Health Collaborative, which is made up of tribal representatives, tribal NGO’s and universities that are assessing the top priorities for tribes in San Diego on environmental health and also trying to find funding to address their problems.
She said that, with the San Diego tribal environmental health collaborative project (TEHC), it’s difficult to measure the success of the drinking water infrastructure.
In addition, there is the issue of cultural competence in environmental health initiatives.
With the services that help tackle the issue, there are cultural conflicts in language and views on how to interpret natural elements, like water, which is considered sacred and represents nature.
“Cultural conflicts arise often due to a misunderstanding of how different communities and governments operate. When working binational there are language and communication barriers as well as cultural differences that can make the work challenging,” Stigler said.
“One thing I noticed was that while in the US we are accustomed to accomplishing many tasks via email and non-personal contact, in many other communities the face-to-face method is obligatory and works best for them,” Stigler said. One aspect of the language barrier involves the different approaches to communication that make it difficult to maintain regular contact. “Recognizing this is critical to having successful projects.”
Besides the language barriers, Stigler also comes across other communication challenges because of what technologies are used to communicate and how the political hierarchies work in the community. Understanding and respecting tribal sovereignty is very important.
“Politics is always an issue. Communication is probably the second biggest issue whether it be that calling internationally is not always easy or the same language isn’t spoken is a huge challenge.” Stigler said. “Also, a lack of understanding about the issues, the politics around those issues and no resources to address the problems. Many people are stretched so thin in addressing these problems and the resources are so slim that it can be really difficult to keep projects going.”
Despite the cultural challenges, the attempts to address and solve the environmental health issues have made some impact.
“Many tribes are now more aware of health and environmental concerns and beginning to address them through their tribal governments, which is a huge step in the right direction.”
Stigler will continue to work as a program manager to bring environmental awareness to local tribes.
“I hope to continue to work with non-profits who are fighting environmental injustices in our region and globally,” she said.
Those who are interested in helping can volunteer or donate to numerous organizations who are working on the issues, such as Environmental Health Coalition and the Native American Environmental Protection Coalition.
“There are many projects and groups that advocate for environmental injustices. I have worked with the US and Mexican governments both to help bring clean drinking water to communities in Mexico and have also received funding from foundations to organize tribes to assess and advocate for addressing environmental health priorities in their communities.”
Regina Ip is a public information intern with the Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities (CRCHD) and is majoring in Communications and Biology at UC San Diego. The CRCHD is a partnership of organizations focusing on community health and health disparities research. This publication was supported by the UC San Diego Comprehensive Research Center in Health Disparities Grant # 5 P60 MD000220 from the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, National Institutes of Health.