Students Investigate Environmental Inequality in New Course
Students Investigate Environmental Inequality in New Course

Ghosts are hard to see.

Strolling along Omaha’s riverfront, there’s no sign of them. Lewis and Clark Landing is serene enough, its bronze statues a touching tribute to the muscle that built Omaha; the CHI Health Center, with its games and concerts, is a brief stroll away; the wide Missouri flows eternally by.

Omaha’s riverfront today is a source of pride.

Not so for the ghosts, who for more than 100 years labored on this same land in pollution-belching lead refineries and battery factories — work that put food on tables, roofs over heads and kids through college, but also poisoned bodies, water and land.

The 110-year-old Asarco lead refinery closed in 1997 and was demolished two years later. There followed a not-yet-concluded period of land decontamination under the terms of the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, more commonly known as Superfund.

This reclamation story, which continues to unfold, is something Adam Sundberg, PhD, assistant professor of history at Creighton University, wants his students to know in a hands-on way. It’s a story, he says, that became common in the second half of the 20th century as Americans escaped industrial pollution by moving to new suburban communities far from the lead particles embedding daily in the soil of their yards and in the lungs of their children.

The History of Environmental Inequalities service-learning course, which Sundberg debuted this year, encompasses seniors from multiple disciplines — “education, history, dance, some biology, sociology, political science, really from all over,” Sundberg says. It seeks to explain how the negative effects of industrialization impacted primarily racial minorities, in the United States and elsewhere in the world, who could not afford to escape. The course, he says, will continued to be offered for at least the next several years.

The service-learning concept reflects Creighton’s desire to integrate community service into the learning experience, which, in turn, aligns with the University’s strategic priority of developing rich and mutually supportive programs with Creighton’s neighbors in north and south Omaha.

Since the University’s Office of Academic Service-Learning was established in 2017, 58 courses have earned its AcSL designation. That number is expected to climb as the concept is expanded to Creighton’s schools of law, medicine, and pharmacy and health professions.

Sundberg’s course carries special resonance for Creighton, which continues to emphasize issues relating to diversity and care for the environment.

“Week by week, we learn what environmental inequality means, its history and what makes it a justice issue,” Sundberg says. “We do a deep dive historically, picking out important case studies in global history, starting with Spanish colonialism and come all the way to the present, talking about climate justice in the context of climate change.”

The course includes a hands-on trip to homes in North Omaha, and points across the metro area, where lead poisoning remains an issue. His students also accompany Creighton nursing students in north and south Omaha as they screen area children for lead by administering finger-prick blood tests.

Between 1999 and December 2015, according to Environmental Protection Agency figures, 130,090 residential properties were cleaned up in a 27-square-mile Superfund area centered on downtown Omaha. Just over 1,000 residential properties remain in need of decontamination, a process that is being pursued by the city of Omaha.

The students accompany Dupree Claxton, a case coordinator with Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, a nonprofit that seeks to improve child health by improving housing. By shadowing Claxton as he tours and analyzes homes, they learn to identify environmental hazards.

“This pilot that we’ve been doing with these students is a real opportunity for them to see what’s going on inside the home and understand what’s happening from a real-world standpoint,” Claxton says. “More than anything, it’s observing and learning, being able to point out what hazards are, why they’re hazards, the things people have to deal with in these areas.”

Echo Perlman, DNP’17, RN, an assistant professor in the Creighton College of Nursing, invites Sundberg’s students to visit neighborhoods where, for the past three years, she has screened young children for lead levels. This year, she says, she expects to screen about 1,500 elementary schoolchildren.

It is an opportunity, she says, for the students to immerse themselves in a different world.

“The nursing students say it’s an education just to see the neighborhoods and the schools,” Perlman says. “It’s a socio-economic world they may not know. For most of them, this is their first exposure into diverse, socially economically challenged populations and so they live and learn.”

A similar benefit accrues to Sundberg’s students, Perlman says, who observe the lead screenings, helping out where they can.

“They get to look at the neighborhoods when they drive to the schools, they get to learn more about those neighborhoods and about different cultures,” she says. “It’s been just really interesting for them from a community perspective.”

Sundberg and Perlman say they hope a permanent database will result from the students’ research into lead pollution. Their findings will eventually be posted permanently, available to the public and constituting a useful guide to future researchers and to medical professionals like Perlman, who expects the students’ research will enable her to target lead screenings more effectively.


Image 1: Naudia McCracken, acting lead program supervisor for the Douglas County Health Department, presents the county’s work on lead screening to the environmental inequalities class. McCracken was one of several guests who addressed the class on the topic of environmental inequalities.

Image 2: Environmental Science/Biology major Abby Robinson conducts research at the Omaha Public Library. Robinson is working with Chemistry major Sasha Ratumaimuri to map the history of exposure to leaded gasoline between the 1920s and the 1970s. Their work will contribute to the larger class project on the history of lead exposure in Omaha.