The Coachella Valley is home to some of California’s richest people, and some of the poorest. Not far from the golf courses and resorts of Palm Springs, the people in the eastern part of the valley live in conditions much more akin to the third world.
For the past few years, the School of Public Health has been working to help improve the living conditions and health of people in this agricultural area of the desert. The relationship began more than three years ago when Riverside County health officials asked the SPH to participate in a task force seeking to address issues of unregulated dumping and resulting fires on tribal land populated largely by migrant farm workers.
“We began to realize that there was quite a bit of work the School of Public Health could begin doing in helping to meet the needs of the communities out there,” says Jesse Bliss, MPH, director of the School’s office of public health practice and workforce development (OPHP), which does the outreach.
The School worked first to address the unregulated dumping, which was harming the respiratory health of residents—especially children—due to the acrid smoke from burning plastics, pesticides, and other hazards. Together with the task force, the School of Public Health wrote a report on the situation, garnering media attention and resulting in the closure of two large unregulated dumps that people and businesses had been using for three decades.
The School’s work and the work of the task force—now called the Eastern Coachella Valley Environmental Health Taskforce—is not over, though. The OPHP is conducting ongoing surveys about the health of children and adults as it relates to dumping and burning.
Furthermore, awareness must still be raised among valley residents, who have now taken to burning trash in barrels or dumping their garbage in random places. Maria Anastario, Megan Brown, and Semran Mann—three health promotion and education students—have taken on the task of working with the community toward the goal of proper and safe trash disposal.
“It’s a really sad situation,” says Ms. Anastario. Residents cannot afford to pay for garbage service. As a result, people are still dealing with issues such as asthma from burning trash. Furthermore, improperly disposed hazardous waste materials flow into ground surface water and wells.
The students will realize their goals through a multipart approach. One tactic will be to work within the local schools, teaching the kids about composting and recycling as well as giving them hotline numbers to call when they observe dumping. Ms. Anastario would also like to ask the schools to implement recycling programs so the kids can bring in household trash such as glass and plastics.
The public health students’ plan also includes creating an educational program for mothers. They will share this plan with the community support organization Poder Popular (Power of the People), which will then send people into the area’s trailer parks to meet with the women.
Another SPH student, Olukemi Famurewa of the department of environmental and occupational health, is doing an environmental health needs assessment of Saint Anthony’s Mobile Home Park in order to pinpoint barriers to wellness.
Ms. Famurewa points out that some of the bigger hurdles facing the residents are sewage, lack of safe water, and road and transportation issues. Working with Poder Popular, she will try to help the community members understand the causes of their problems, show them what they can do on their own to make changes, and determine how outsiders such as the School of Public Health and Poder Popular can be of help.
The major issue Ms. Famurewa will probably focus on is safe water. The ultimate goal—and challenge—would be to connect the trailer park to the area’s central water supply. Currently, because the well water has a high arsenic content, the government has required the owner of Saint Anthony’s to keep large storage tanks supplied with safe water. But residents are skeptical about the cleanliness of the tanks, and furthermore, the tanks are not always filled regularly. Sometimes, they have to resort to purchasing water.
“It’s expensive for them to get the water, but they don’t have a choice,” says Ms. Famurewa.
Another recent activity of the OPHP on behalf of the people of eastern Coachella Valley involved lending writing support to a collaborative group that successfully prepared a proposal to receive 10 years of funding from the California Endowment. The California Endowment subsequently chose the cities of Coachella and Thermal as one of 14 areas in California to participate in its Building Healthy Communities initiative, the goal of which is communities where children and youth live in safety and good health, ready to learn.
Mr. Bliss notes that the large migrant farm worker population in the eastern Coachella Valley experiences worse living conditions and health than many others in the United States.
“Our office is committed to extending activities and programs to this community to help them in building their capacity to address the various health and environmental disparities,” he says.