Incompatible land uses and the topology of cumulative risk

Raul P. Lejano, C. Scott Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The extensive literature on environmental justice has, by now, well defined the essential ingredients of cumulative risk, namely, incompatible land uses and vulnerability. Most problematic is the case when risk is produced by a large aggregation of small sources of air toxics. In this article, we test these notions in an area of Southern California, Southeast Los Angeles (SELA), which has come to be known as Asthmatown. Developing a rapid risk mapping protocol, we scan the neighborhood for small potential sources of air toxics and find, literally, hundreds of small point sources within a 2-mile radius, interspersed with residences. We also map the estimated cancer risks and non-cancer hazard indices across the landscape. We find that, indeed, such large aggregations of even small, nondominant sources of air toxics can produce markedly elevated levels of risk. In this study, the risk profiles show additional cancer risks of up to 800 in a million and noncancer hazard indices of up to 200 in SELA due to the agglomeration of small point sources. This is significant (for example, estimates of the average regional point-source-related cancer risk range from 125 to 200 in a million). Most importantly, if we were to talk about the risk contour as if they were geological structures, we would observe not only a handful of distinct peaks, but a general "mountain range" running all throughout the study area, which underscores the ubiquity of risk in SELA. Just as cumulative risk has deeply embedded itself into the fabric of the place, so, too, must intervention seek to embed strategies into the institutions and practices of SELA. This has implications for advocacy, as seen in a recently initiated participatory action research project aimed at building health research capacities into the community in keeping with an ethic of care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)230-246
Number of pages17
JournalEnvironmental Management
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2006


  • Air toxics
  • Cumulative risk
  • Environmental justice
  • Risk assessment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology
  • Pollution


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