When Jane Willenbring started as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she wondered why a developed country such as the U.S. relied on blood tests to determine if the environment was contaminated with heavy metals.

Stanford geologist Jane Willenbring and students from the course The Geoscience of Environmental Justice at the East Palo Alto Community Farmers Market. (Image credit: Emily Moskal)

“It just seems so perverse and backward to me that we are not being proactive about figuring out where contamination is before it has contaminated little kids,” said Willenbring, who is now an associate professor of geological sciences at Stanford University. “Communities are the experts in their own environments. And so we are hoping to collaborate with people in those communities in order to solve problems that are really relevant to them.”

Willenbring is the instructor for a new Earth science course, GEOLSCI 20: The Geoscience of Environmental Justice (GeoEJ). Willenbring frames the course through case studies – focusing on particular places where there are contaminants in the environment that negatively impact people.

As part of the course, Willenbring and students have a stand at the East Palo Alto Community Farmers Market where they screen samples on the spot for metal contaminants like lead, cadmium, and arsenic. People can bring in soil from a community garden, compost, debris from their vacuum cleaner, toys, or spices – whatever they are interested in measuring. Spring quarter students were at the stand on the second Wednesday of every month in May and June, but they can continue to accompany Willenbring through October if they so choose.

In addition to testing contaminants that are prevalent in urban environment soils, the class also counsels people on how to mitigate some of the harm from contaminants in their environment.

Case study: East Palo Alto

Willenbring focuses on East Palo Alto because contamination intersects with populations, race, and poverty in this neighborhood.

“Like most places in the United States, minority communities have been shunted,” said Willenbring. “There’s a huge divide between East Palo Alto and Palo Alto, in terms of demographics. And when you compare places that are predominantly white, to places that are predominantly minority, there’s a big difference in the environmental contamination.”

Willenbring cites highway traffic and legacy leaded gasoline exhaust as major contributors to the lead found in urban soil. Highways were built through poorer neighborhoods, Willenbring says, because wealthier households did not want them built near their dwellings.

As a result, “we have some environments where our kids are growing up that are toxic,” Willenbring said. “We are not setting people up to succeed because of the harmful impacts to cognitive ability, and just general health.”

Research has indicated that the impacts of even low levels of lead in blood can manifest in behavioral problems, substance abuse, cognitive impairment, and, possibly, crime, noted Willenbring.

X-rays shed light on contamination

Ruby Gates, ’24, an Earth science major at Stanford who took the course in spring joined the class May 11 at the farmers market. Waiting for someone to bring their soil sample by, Gates said that the academic study of environmental injustice is crucial for providing scientific backing to political movements.

“You can ground a lot of your movements within these soil or water contaminants and know that there are paths to solutions, as opposed to just saying, ‘This is an unsolvable problem, or this problem is too vast for us to have solutions for,’ ” said Gates. “I think that Earth science can really attack that and disprove some of those claims.”

As a retired smog technician approaches the stand, a class member pulls out the X-ray scanner. “The gun is sort of like elemental vision,” Willenbring said. The scanner peers through plastic bags. In 120 seconds, the detector reveals heavy metals that are present in the half-pint samples of sediment.

The results aren’t perfect, but they can tell scientists whether a sample is within a range of concern. Willenbring recommends that sample owners with high results send the sample to the Environmental Protection Agency for more accurate results. Then, the class shares mitigation strategies. If someone has soil with high lead levels, they tell them to cover it with compost or create raised beds with new soil for a garden.

Willenbring says a key part of community engagement is voluntary behavior on both sides. Rather than testing the produce being sold at the market, for example, she wants the community to come to her.

Education rooted in community service

The course was born from Willenbring’s ruminations about a recent study of undergraduate STEM majors, specifically undergraduates in the geosciences. The study found that a primary motivation for respondents was choosing a career that mattered to people.

“Altruistic motives were important to undergraduates; less so was this commonly accepted idea that people chose a geoscience major to explore nature and work outside,” said Willenbring. “I wanted to create a course that offered opportunities to work with people and communities on real problems.”

Her course isn’t the only way to get involved. There’s an environmental justice working group at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability that Willenbring recommends. According to her, the new school is creating a new model for how science can be a change maker rather than simply finding out how something works. Stanford also offers other environmental justice courses, as well as a new minor.

“It’s something that’s on the minds of students and a lot of faculty as well,” Willenbring said.

Willenbring said the class is unique because it offers a different approach to science.

“The class will flip the way science has traditionally been done in favor of application-driven motives,” Willenbring said. “By asking how our skills and toolboxes will be used to solve real-world problems that are affecting people, we address environmental injustice.”