UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Magazine - Summer 2021 | Our Path Forward

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With her appointment to the newly created Fielding Presidential Chair in Health Equity, Lara Cushing will illuminate the evidence for and health consequences of social and racial inequalities in harmful environmental exposures. GROWING UP an hour north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Tucson, Arizona, in the 1990s afforded Dr. Lara Cushing a vantage point that set her on a trajectory to her current position, as an assistant professor of environmental health sciences and the newly appointed Jonathan and Karin Fielding Presidential Chair in Health Equity at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. The U.S. Border Patrol DR. LARA CUSHING launched Operation Safeguard in Nogales, Arizona, in 1995, a sharp escalation of borderenforcement efforts, just as the newly enacted North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was taking effect and the peso had been devalued. “The border became heavily militarized, and it was hard not to see the stark 18

contrast on the other side of the barriers built during my childhood,” Cushing recalls. “At the same time, NAFTA resulted in the development of a lot of industry on the Mexican side of the border — maquiladoras [factories in Mexico run by foreign companies, with no tariffs and lower environmental standards]. All of that was formative in opening my eyes to the connections between environmental health and social justice concerns. And now, as a new parent, that work has become personal as I think about what type of legacy I want to leave for the generations to come.” At the UCLA Fielding School, where Cushing joined the faculty in 2020, her research focuses on issues of environmental justice, including the evidence for and health consequences of social and racial inequalities in environmental exposures in U.S. communities. “Over the last half-century, we have made progress in many areas in terms of reducing levels of harmful pollution in our air and water,” Cushing says. “But

U C L A F I E L D I N G S C H O O L O F P U B L I C H E A LT H M AG A Z I N E

even as overall levels of pollution have gone down, the gaps in exposure experienced by Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other communities of color as compared to white communities persist. We have lacked both a coordinated, effective federal response to climate change and a coordinated, effective reckoning with racism in the U.S. To me, these factors are linked and must be studied together to understand how racism produces environmental health disparities and ultimately seek remedies that can jointly advance sustainability and equity goals.” Using geographic information system mapping and social and environmental epidemiology methods, Cushing has investigated exposures related to oil and gas drilling, the existence of “heat islands” in urban areas, and the cumulative impacts of multiple pollution sources in disadvantaged neighborhoods on reproductive and other health outcomes. She was part of a group that issued a 2021 study showing a higher rate of preterm births among Latina women living near oil and gas wells in south Texas where drillers burn off excess natural gas as part of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques. Her work has also pointed to the disproportionate impact of climate change on low-income populations. Cushing coauthored a recent study projecting that as many as 24,500 affordable housing units in the United States will be exposed to coastal flooding by 2050, triple the number of units at risk only 20 years ago.


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