The historic community of Watts in South Central Los Angeles today faces staggering environmental health and justice challenges. Watts is densely populated, and approximately half of all residents living in the area are 17 years old or younger. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, Watts is among the top 5% most polluted and vulnerable communities in the state. Unsurprisingly, the residents of Watts have the lowest life expectancy of any other community in California — nearly 12 years lower than the residents of nearby Brentwood. These realities point to the need to document these conditions and their impact on health, and to craft comprehensive solutions to the community’s grave environmental health and justice challenges.

Launched in January 2016, the Better Watts Initiative is a partnership of local nonprofits, organizations, medical institutions, and academic representatives that works to address these challenges. Despite being a young partnership, the initiative has already experienced numerous successes.

Since the group’s formation, BWI has held two town hall events, which were attended by over 200 residents, agency representatives, and elected officials. To build support for the work moving forward, the group has engaged with elected officials and regulatory agencies and will be holding an elected official town hall and hearing on Saturday, May 7th.

BWI has been actively engaging the community of Watts to influence major policy decisions impacting their built environment. On April 14th, the partnership delivered a letter signed by hundreds of concerned citizens urging Governor Brown to properly test the residential areas of the Jordan Downs redevelopment project in Watts, which is currently undergoing remediation for elevated levels of contaminants including lead and arsenic.

PSR-LA plays a central role in the Better Watts Initiative, leading the dialogue and strategic planning around health research and advocacy. Throughout 2016, PSR-LA has been conducting a series of health talks to educate community residents on the health implications of exposure to contaminated soil, water, and air. We hope these health talks will be a launching point for community participatory research, including testing tap water in homes, and testing the teeth of residents to analyze for exposure to toxic metals.

PSR-LA members are vital to success of this work. Our health ambassadors have been engaged in the work in Watts for over a year now, running health talks, organizing a health needs assessment and bringing crucial health services to the community. We are excited to continue this work into 2016, alongside our next batch of Ambassadors and our members. For more information, contact Monika Shankar at mshankar@psr-la.org.