Drilling Down

By Andy Faught Photo by Marc Campos

Guided by rigorous research and a moral compass, Associate Professor Bhavna Shamasunder exposes the environmental injustices affecting the health of Angelenos

Sunshine and show business have always fueled the Los Angeles mystique. But the city’s earliest impressions gushed from an altogether different source, one whose hazardous legacy is felt more than a century later in some of the region’s more vulnerable neighborhoods.

Oil derricks in a sub­urban California neighborhood
Oil derricks dot a sub­urban California neighborhood in an undated photo.

Even now, there are 500 working oil wells in the city—5,000 total throughout Los Angeles County—whose benzene emissions, among other irritants, contribute to head­aches, asthma, and diminished lung function among residents who sometimes live mere yards from the wells.

Capping the sites and safeguarding communities, many of them residents of color and limited means, has been a more than decade-long mission for Bhavna Shamasunder, associate professor and chair of Occidental’s Urban and Environmental Policy program.

“These are neighborhoods that are also burdened by freeways, other industrial sites, linguistic isolation, and poverty,” says Shamasunder, who has provided community members with a potent tool that has helped to force policy changes while working to reverse negative health trends. “We are partnering with communities to collect data. They gain resources and data to support their advocacy, and it’s a way to build power.”

This year, after collaborating with community groups that include STAND-L.A., an environmental justice coalition of grass-roots organizations committed to ending drilling and protecting the health of Angelenos, Shamasunder’s persistence paid off. In January, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban new oil wells and phase out existing ones, though it didn’t provide a timetable. The decision followed a similar move a month earlier by the Los Angeles City Council, which will ban all pumping over 20 years.

“When we started this work 10 years ago, no one was talking about it,” Shamasunder says. “For a long time, L.A. did nothing, and the government facilitated drilling in plain sight. Wells would get fenced in by landscapes or a tall wall, and some of them are disguised as office buildings. L.A. forgot they were there, and it was kind of intentional.”

Shamasunder may take issue with the length of the phase-out period—an amortization period that’s currently under study—but it’s nonetheless one of her proudest professional accomplishments. Her 2017 study “Community-Based Health and Exposure Study Around Urban Oil Developments in South Los Angeles” (published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health ) was the first published research to demonstrate the health perils of oil extraction to surrounding neighborhoods.

Oil wells pump next to the Willow Springs Wetlands preserve in Long Beach in May 2017.
Oil wells pump next to the Willow Springs Wetlands preserve in Long Beach in May 2017.

In a survey of South Los Angeles communities, three-quarters of active oil wells are 500 meters from “sensitive land uses” that include homes, schools, parks, childcare businesses, or senior housing, Shamasunder found. Los Angeles has never required a buffer zone between oil fields and sensitive areas. In surveys, she also discovered that asthma is more common among residents living near South L.A. oil wells than in the rest of the county.

In collaboration with USC’s Keck School of Medicine, researchers discovered that lung capacity, or the amount of air a person can exhale, is diminished the closer they live to a well. Aiding Shamasunder in her research was her Oxy colleague James Sadd, professor of environmental science, who teaches geographic information systems. Using spatial analysis and statistical tools, Sadd created maps using CalEnviroScreen that showed environmental hazards throughout the city. He combined environmental pollution data with economic and social data to come up with scores that identified neighborhoods at greatest risk from industrial pollution.

“Bhavna combines her training and expertise as a scientist with an unusually focused sense of morality,” says Sadd, who has collaborated with Shamasunder on coursework since she arrived at Occidental in 2011. “She is methodical and careful in her analyti­cal work to ensure objectivity and rigor, and she avoids allowing social justice advocacy to overtake her research.”

The environmental impact of oil extraction in urban neighborhoods is only one facet of Shamasunder’s influential research. In a journal article published in 2017, she considers the racial and ethnic differences in beauty product use—such as skin lighteners, hair straighteners, and feminine hygiene products—and the potential chemical exposures and health risks associated with those products.

Small amounts of chemicals have been linked with fibroids, breast cancer, and pre­term birth, and a body of research has shown that women of color have higher levels of beauty-related chemicals in their bodies, independent of socioeconomic status. Shamasunder’s paper “The environmental injustice of beauty: Framing chemical exposures from beauty products as a health disparities concern” was published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology

Women of color are “overexposed and unprotected” when it comes to beauty products, says Astrid Williams, manager of the environmental justice program for South L.A.-based Black Women for Wellness. Eurocentric beauty standards, poor government regulation, and systemic racism have allowed Black women to be sold cosmetics with ingredients that are harmful not only to reproductive health but also respiratory health, she claims. Shamasunder was one of the first to draw attention to the dangers. “Bhavna is really connected, and she’s passionate, which shows,” Williams says.

Born in Chicago, Shamasunder is the child of Indian immigrants: Her father, HK Shamasunder, came to the United States because of the need for physicians in underserved areas, and the family moved to the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles when Bhavna was 1. Palmdale, it seemed to her, didn’t embody the American Dream. “It was pretty racially segregated growing up,” she recalls. “In my formative years, I didn’t have words for it.”

Shamasunder developed her social justice sensibilities as an undergraduate at UC San Diego, where she took courses in biology and ethnic studies. One class considered the discriminatory practice of redlining—lending and selling practices that shunted people of color into unsafe and undesirable neighborhoods. The experience helped her to see racial links between the hard and social sciences.

As a graduate student at Yale, Shamasunder heard a talk by environmental justice lawyer Luke Cole, who gained renown filing lawsuits on behalf of indigenous communities suffering the health effects of corporate polluters.

“That’s when I started piecing together racial justice and environmental change,” she says. “I felt inspired that there was a movement of people making these connections. There was this group thinking about the environment and social justice at the same time—that they’re not disconnected. I felt excited and less isolated.”

Prior to her Ph.D. studies at UC Berkeley, Shamasunder was coordinator of the Environmental Health and Justice Program at Urban Habitat. She worked with low-income communities and communities of color in the Bay Area to address the disproportionate negative effects of social, environmental, and economic policies through community outreach, strategic research, regional coalition-building, policy, and advocacy.

Sofia Polo ’16 completes a survey with a South L.A. resident.
Sofia Polo ’16 completes a survey with a South L.A. resident. (Photo by Sandy Navarro/L.A. Grit Media)

At Occidental, Shamasunder has incorporated many of her community experiences into her coursework, including UEP 101 (Environment and Society), which considers how U.S. government policies have shaped access to outdoor environments and how racial justice movements intersect with climate justice. “Climate is a deep concern for our students,” she adds—an interdisciplinary challenge that touches on everything from homelessness to the push for green energy.

Emma Silber ’23, an urban and environmental policy major from Seattle, learned about L.A.’s oil history in UEP 101. The class moved her to become part of the solution through an internship with STAND-L.A.

“Not being from Southern California, it was astounding to me that this is happening all around, and a lot of people aren’t aware of how pervasive it is,” says Silber, who is an environmental health and justice research assistant to Shamasunder. “From my first year, I found this to be an intriguing topic.”

Silber—who presented her senior comp titled “What Comes Next? Envisioning the Future of Oil Sites in Los Angeles” in April—is considering seeking work in climate justice, in which she hopes to advocate for clean energy sources “with an equity lens.” Just because the Los Angeles oil wells ultimately will cease operations doesn’t mean the battles are over, she says.

Further conversations will center on ensuring the well cleanups are aligned to environmental standards, and making sure they are redeveloped to prioritize community uses. “This is not the time to stop doing this work,” Silber says. 

In all, five students from various majors are helping Shamasunder with her research. Their tactics aren’t always greeted with enthusiasm. In her latest work, Shamasunder and USC researchers tested the surface soil of the now-closed Exide battery plant in southeast Los Angeles County. They found that 73 nearby homes registered lead concentrations that exceeded state thresholds.

Their findings were reported on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and prompted local and national agencies as well as elected officials to examine the ongoing cleanup.

There’s a larger dynamic at play, she says: “This is a power-building strategy. Research is powerful; data is powerful. Residents have data about their communities so they can go to a public meeting and be in it together. They’re not isolated.” 

Faught wrote "First Impressions" in the Fall 2022 magazine.

Top photo:  Professor Bhavna Shamasunder and her research team, l-r: Joaquín Madrid Larrañaga ’23, Francisca Castro ’21, Leela Cullity Younger ’23, Shamasunder, Emma Silber ’23, and Audrey Sohn ’24.

Derricks and wetlands photos by Adobe Stock.