When Youth Lead

Teens are uncovering the connections between health and the environment, discovering science as part of their lives, and taking action for their communities' health.

Quincy is a small town in the heart of Washington state's wheat and potato country. It's a conservative place, where environmentalism has a bad name and pesticides are an integral part of the economy. A string of chemical and food-processing companies lines the railroad tracks through town. When Quincy's mayor began uncovering a shocking story about fertilizer companies adulterating their products with toxic waste as a way of cheaply disposing of it, few believed her. When she began claiming that some land in Quincy was contaminated with waste, and then recruited an investigative reporter from the Seattle Times to substantiate her claims, many in the town were enraged at the mayor for stirring up trouble.

Camille Grigg and Chelsea Dannen analyze data

The reporter, Duff Wilson, eventually discovered that the problem was nationwide: companies throughout the US were exploiting legal loopholes to turn industrial waste into fertilizer, according to Wilson's book, Fateful Harvest. But the story began with a chemical waste pond near Quincy High School. No one knew exactly what was in it—perhaps not even the company responsible for it knew. It was known that disposing of the waste legally would be expensive. Instead, according to Wilson, the company arranged to spray most of it on a local field; crops on the field later died and contaminants began leaking from the pond site into ground water. Eventually, US Environmental Protection Agency scientists showed up in full chemical protection suits and began taking samples from the capped-over pond. Generations of Quincy High graduates had gone to work for the corporation responsible for the waste pond. Some of them were implicated in an attempted cover-up of the story.

When a group of Quincy students was looking for a local issue to research for a science class, their teacher suggested they study the waste pond. Although high school runners on the track had sometimes complained of fumes from the pond, the student researchers had never heard of the issue. When they learned of the investigation, they were skeptical and angry at the controversy stirred up. They wanted to check for themselves the validity of the scientific methods investigators had used, and their conclusions.

It is just this kind of project that Washington state's Youth Network for Healthy Communities (YNHC) encourages. Through this program, the Quincy students were connected via videoconferencing with university scientists. They prepared a presentation of their research for a panel of experts assembled at the University of Washington by the Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health. The panelists queried the students about their work, pushing the students to engage in critical thinking.

The network's resources and encouragement helped energize the Quincy students. They researched the chemicals involved in the leak, gathered documents from state and federal agencies, and scrutinized air sample analysis. Their research showed that the plume of contamination from the waste pond did not make a right-angle turn as scientists had predicted, but instead flowed straight under their high school.

One student, Camille Grigg, went to city hall to check correspondence between agencies and learn about the public process that led to the scheduled clean-up. Another student, Chelsea Dannen, checked what the government knew about the health effects. Her analysis of documents found that little was known.

At first the students refused to believe that school could be in session if the contamination were so bad. Rob Stagg, the science teacher who worked with the students, said, “They used to think that environmental issues were just dreamed up by people with an agenda and that if there were a real problem we would all know about it. Now they know that these issues involve real data and that most people will never know about the issues unless they look and listen for them.”

The students concluded that much more research needed to be done about the health effects of the leak, and they learned something more: “They learned that it is within our power to become aware of these conditions, share their understanding with others, and influence actions taken to alter the conditions,” said Stagg. He plans to continue working with YNHC in years to come, helping class after class of students to study the health effects of the chemical leak over the years, building a deep community understanding of the issue. Already, one of his students, Rose Gonzales, has analyzed the methods used to evaluate air quality samples collected by previous Quincy High School students working with Washington State University scientists.

Quincy is one of 28 schools around Washington state that have worked with YNHC in the three years since it launched. Many have been in small, rural towns, where young people are learning for themselves how environmental issues affect their health and the lives of people in their communities. Through YNHC, they are learning to ask tough questions and then to take action.

Young people are frequently at the core of social movements that change minds and hearts, and a growing coalition of organizations is now supporting teen environmental health work. One working in urban areas, Wilderness Inter-city Leadership Development (WILD) project, works primarily with Asian and Pacific Islander teens in the Seattle area. One of their initiatives prepares teens to help elders and others in their communities with limited ability to read English to understand posted fish warnings and household product labels that warn of possible health hazards. Recently, the YMCA EarthService Corps, with the help of the Institute for Children's Environmental Health, devoted its annual teen symposium in Seattle to environmental health topics—everything from the dangers of meth labs to pesticides in food.

Jon Sharpe is curriculum manager for the CEEH. Elise Miller is executive director of ICEH.

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