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Silicon Valley Toxics Heaviest In Poor, Latino Areas

Environmental inequality
SAN FRANCISCO -- Toxic emissions in the Silicon Valley region are concentrated in neighborhoods that tend to be poorer and more Latino, according to sociologist Andrew Szasz of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Analyzing census data and EPA records, Szasz found that the wealthiest communities are almost all far from the toxic corridor and upwind of it, except for a few areas near Stanford University, where a tract high in emissions borders two of the wealthiest tracts in the county.

Now with compelling evidence of environmental inequality in the region, Szasz says the question is what to do to protect people from being systematically victimized because of their ethnicity and income level.

Fewer than 10 such studies
Szasz documents changes from 1960 to 1990 in the racial makeup and median income levels of neighborhoods, and he uses the EPA's Toxics Releases Inventory (TRI) to track the presence of toxic materials.

Many of the hazardous chemicals used in the computer chip manufacturing are included in the TRI list of toxic substances. In Santa Clara County, about 10 percent of TRI materials are emitted directly into the air; the bulk -- nearly 75 percent in 1990 -- are shipped off-site to treatment and disposal facilities, according to Szasz.

Throughout the 1970s, there were scattered reports in the social science literature that environmental hazards are unevenly distributed, they disproportionately impact the poor and people of color.

Researchers agree that addressing the problem of environmental inequality requires understanding the processes that occur over to create unequal exposure to environmental risks. That, in turn, requires going beyond documenting inequalities at a single moment in time and doing local histories.

Stasz's profile of Santa Clara County is one of less than 10 such studies. Unlike most of the others, which have typically focused on older industrial, "rust belt" cities, Szasz's work examines a community where more recent, high technology industrialization occurred.

The rapid transformation of Santa Clara County from a productive agricultural region to a major electronics manufacturing center made it ripe for study, said Szasz.

Dr. Szasz and research associate Michael Meuser of UCSC will presented their work on August 24 at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco, Calif. Project maps and findings are posted on the following Web site:

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Albion Monitor September 8, 1998 (

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