“Unearthing Lead: The Power of Historical Maps,” an EPA award-winning video by a team of students at UCI led by Tim Schutz. 

Read the article below from Maya Cheav, a Community Science Organizer for Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ), on the soil lead issue occurring in Santa Ana and what OCEJ is doing to combat it. Maya graduated from Chapman in 2022 with a B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy.

When most people picture violence, they might imagine being shot in the chest or stabbed through the heart. However, though it may not initially look like it, environmental injustice is violence too. 

The term slow violence, coined by Rob Nixon, is described as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” 

An environmental justice community is a community mainly consisting of low-income BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), making them more at risk to environmental hazards than higher-income white communities. Santa Ana is an environmental justice community, with a primarily Latinx population, as well as Vietnamese and Khmer folk. One of the most urgent environmental justice issues that Santa Ana faces is soil lead poisoning. 

Children are the most vulnerable population for the effects of soil lead. Some of the health effects include seizures, high blood pressure, learning disabilities, behavioral issues, and more. Imagine you’re an elementary school student living in Santa Ana, in a place that’s a hotspot for soil lead. You may deal with behavioral issues resulting from this exposure. Maybe it’s hard for you to focus in school, leading to bad grades, not getting into college, and ultimately lowering educational and economic outcomes. This may mean being constrained to lower-paying jobs , which are essential to our society and require some of the hardest labor, yet the systems in which we live consider these jobs “unskilled work” and do not adequately financially compensate those in such positions. Because of soil lead, you may get trapped in the cycle of poverty. And in a more extreme case maybe those behavioral issues are causing you to act out in class, leading to detentions, suspension, or expulsion. An even worse outcome is ending up in the school to prison pipeline, going to juvenile detention or adult prison. Though this may not look like traditional violence, a person’s quality of life can suffer drastically because of environmental impacts, and it can go so far as to disrupt whole communities and generations. 

In an attempt to end this violence, Orange County Environmental Justice (OCEJ) and UCI Public Health collaborated on the soil lead campaign to investigate soil lead levels in Santa Ana after reading an article by Santa Ana local and reporter, Yvette Cabrerra, remarking that she found lead levels in the area that exceeded state and federal guidelines. 

Through the campaign, we sampled soil from 500 locations in Santa Ana, including residential areas, schools, parks, and industrial zones. We then mapped the lead concentrations throughout Santa Ana, pinpointed the hotspots, and analyzed the factors that made someone more at risk. We also surveyed residents about their personal experiences since our organization emphasizes centering community members and empowering them to share their stories. 

We found that 811 out of 1555 samples tested unsafe for children, which was over 50% of the samples. The highest levels of lead were found in downtown and central Santa Ana. The groups most at risk for soil lead poisoning are:

  • People of color 
  • Residents with lower income status 
  • Residents who are renters
  • Residents without health insurance
  • Residents with immigrant status 
  • Residents with limited English proficiency 
  • Latinx residents 

In the past there has been a lot of speculation about the major causes of lead poisoning. Lead paint was used up until 1978, so many of the buildings created before then have that issue. The paint chips and dust can be a risk for lead poisoning. Moreover, old orange groves within Santa Ana had farm agriculture products using leaded-arsenic and other toxic chemicals. However, these groves are located on the outskirts of Santa Ana, which do not match up with the areas on our map that show the highest levels of lead. 

Other organizations have claimed that the high concentrations of lead in Santa Ana are caused by lead in candy and traditional dishware that has been moved across the border when people have immigrated into the U.S. This is a harmful racialized narrative that points the finger at Mexican immigrants, which is particularly damaging in Santa Ana, a primarily Latinx community. However, this theorized source cannot account for how widespread and severe this issue is and also is not scientifically backed. 

What we deduced with our research was that the largest source of soil lead was caused by leaded gasoline. Leaded gas wasn’t banned until 1996, so the residue of this gas may have transferred over to the roadways and seeped into the soil. By comparing the map on the far left that depicts the roadways in Santa Ana existing in the 1930s (before leaded gas was banned) and the map on the far right that shows the lead concentrations, we can see that the hotspots lie right along the old roadways. 


The solutions that OCEJ are pursuing are systemic change with city governments and sharing the scientific findings from our research. Earlier this year, OCEJ successfully worked to include policies in the General Plan Update regarding lead in the soil, including ones on providing soil lead-related jobs, access to blood lead testing, and considering alternatives to traditional remediation. Traditional soil remediation typically involves just digging up the soil and relocating it, which is 1) very labor intensive, 2) expensive and, 3) still leaves the soil lead-laden and makes it someone else’s problem. The idea that we have been negotiating for is bioremediation, which utilizes native plants and fungi to absorb the lead out of the soil. It brings more natural beauty and greenspace, which is much needed in Santa Ana since it has so few parks. It is also a much cheaper option than traditional remediation. The city also agreed to provide more access to blood lead testing for residents in Santa Ana, which is particularly beneficial to many members of the community who do not have health insurance. 

In terms of spreading awareness about the issue, we are trying to break down our scientific research in a way that’s easy to understand. We are doing so through our environmental health and equity plan that discusses mitigation strategies and how to prevent this issue from happening in the future. We are also creating a comic book with the help of Santa Ana youth as a means of making an engaging visual representation of the issue, which also helps cross language barriers and makes the issue intriguing for young children. We are also in the process of creating an interactive in-person mystery game as a metaphor for the soil lead issue. By making this process immersive and entertaining, people are more likely to understand the soil lead problem deeply. 

Get Involved! 

We can use all the help we can get, so please volunteer some of your time to contribute to fighting the battle against environmental injustices in Orange County! If you are a Santa Ana resident, please come participate in our focus group sessions where you can share your thoughts/experiences with soil lead and solutions you’d like to see. Sign up here: 


You can learn more about the Santa Ana soil lead issue by reading our resource repository, which has more details about the campaign, solutions, scientific papers, press releases, podcast, and more!

Curious to know more about the soil lead issue in Santa Ana or other environmental injustices in Orange County? Check out OCEJ’s website and socials here: