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Valley Fever: Environmental Racism and Health Justice

  • Author(s): Rios, Sarah Maxine
  • Advisor(s): Lipsitz, George
  • et al.
Abstract

This study of environmental racism and health in Kern County explores the experiences of farmworkers and formerly incarcerated men and women who have suffered from Valley Fever, an illness caused by a fungus spore that can lead to long-term pulmonary, brain, and spinal infections, and in some cases, death. Building on previous studies, I expand the analysis of how vulnerable groups acquire and recover from Valley Fever. Previous research has focused on racial minorities’ genetic propensity for disparate impacts (Hector, Rutherford, Tsang 2011; Galgiani 2014), the efficacy of medical interventions (CDCP 2016), and efforts to map the areas where the disease is most likely found (Smith et. Al 1961, Kolivaras et. Al 2000). These piecemeal approaches inevitably foreground one cause or cure over others. They also divert analysis away from the conditions in which the disease is contracted and away from the structures that govern accessing care. My research explores the cumulative vulnerabilities that shape how vulnerable group’s contract and recover from Valley Fever. I ask: How do vulnerable groups come to understand Valley Fever’s causes, consequences, and potential cures? How does their knowledge differ from conventional experts in public health and biomedical research? What social and ecological structures in Kern County shape their ability to manage valley fever? Over the course of ten consecutive months of field research, I drew upon a broad range of methods, taking note of the prevailing social and environmental conditions of a Valley Fever endemic county. I interviewed thirty-nine farm workers and formerly incarcerated men and women of color, but also community activists who work closely with these two groups. I also conducted extensive research in state and county archives, court reports and amicus briefs, online social media and secondary sources to explore how vulnerable groups contract and recover from this disease, the strategies they devise to deal with its effects, and to compare their knowledge from conventional experts. My strategies reflect João H. Costa Vargas (2008) discussion on observant participation where participating, rather than passively observing, was critical to entering the field site and collecting data. I utilize the social ecological framework of illness and the lessons of the environmental justice movement to uncover how the health and wellbeing of farmworkers and prisoners in Kern County are damaged long before they come into contact with Valley Fever spores.

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