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How Residents of South LA Are Tackling Environmental Racism

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How Residents of South LA Are Tackling Environmental Racism
Hazardous materials strewn throughout the neighborhood in Watts, California. Better Watts Initiative

By Daniel Ross

For decades, the South Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts has been hemmed in by dangerous pollutants.


On one corner sits the Jordan Downs housing project, at the center of which is a toxic former industrial site. Children in Jordan Downs have been found with elevated levels of lead in their blood, and the industrial site's toxic legacy has complicated plans to redevelop the estate.

Just south of Watts is Ujima Village, a 300-unit subsidized housing complex. It was abandoned less than 10 years ago by its residents because of dangerous levels of soil and groundwater contamination stemming from an oil storage site that had never been remediated. Two busy freeways—the I-110 and the I-105—crisscross the fringes of Watts, which is one of the most heavily industrialized neighborhoods in LA. Indeed, most of Watts is ranked in the top 5 percent most environmentally burdened regions of California, in terms of the accumulated toll from a variety of different pollutants and their impacts on people's health.

"We're living in the midst of all of this," Watkins added, "and the Better Watts Initiative was founded to address this unabated environmental racism that's been going on for far too long."

Watkins has lived all his life in Watts, which is predominantly Black and Latino. Residents there live on average 12 years less than those from the much more affluent neighborhood of Brentwood and where certain sections suffer some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease, asthma, and low birth weight babies in all of California. The son of famed civil and poverty rights activist Ted Watkins, he launched the Better Watts Initiative back in 2015 with the intention of accomplishing a number of important objectives—the primary one has been to educate residents on toxic pollution in their air, soil, and drinking water. "And when you're educated, that's when you become aware of other things going on around you," he said.

That educational approach has included a broader effort to highlight contaminated drinking water supplies in the area, particularly at local schools; in 2016, the attention BWI had placed on contaminated school drinking water systems helped force local school authorities to flush their drinking water fountains more consistently, removing lead and other contamination that had built up in the pipes, said Watkins.

Town Hall meeting held by the Better Watts Initiative on environmental issues in Watts, California.Better Watts Initiative

The initiative is a partnership between the WLCAC and a number of other organizations from within or very near Watts, including the Charles R. Drew University, the Black Community Health Task Force, and Cal State University Dominguez Hills.

Hard data can be a crucial weapon in effecting change. That's why BWI has also partnered with an international clean-air coalition to install an air monitoring system for common air pollutants at a busy Watts intersection. The system produces real-time air results that can be accessed online, so that people with respiratory problems can check air quality in the area. Watkins hopes the data will also trigger actions to improve public infrastructure and introduce road impediments to curb and slow traffic.

Last year, the BWI collected its own data by surveying 200 randomly selected residents and found that "about 90 percent of the people surveyed had to buy bottled water because the [tap] water's not good enough to drink," BWI director Ava Post said. She estimates that the average Watts resident spends at least $319 buying bottled water each year. If 90 percent of Watts has to buy bottled water, that sets the neighborhood back nearly $12 million per year—this, in a neighborhood where the median household income is almost $25,000 below LA's. "There's a lot of problems, and some are very expensive problems for the people here," she said.

On the back of this survey, the BWI went home to home distributing information and talking with residents about how to protect themselves and their families from lead poisoning—such as keeping children away from lead contaminated paint and the importance of foods rich with vitamin C, iron and calcium.

Local schools remain a primary focus. "Schools should not be allowed to dispense water that is knowingly tainted," Watkins said. "A key Better Watts Initiative mission challenge is to understand what the intersection of these exposures are with human behavior."

Last year, ground broke on a multimillion-dollar 2.5-acre agricultural park in the heart of Watts that will include space for community gardens, where residents can start to build healthier lives. For Watkins, the work for the BWI is far from over.

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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