For years street gutters in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn had carried caustic-smelling effluents from an adhesives factory. Under the tutelage of high school science teacher Morales, 28, students took samples of the runoff back to their lab and found them flammable and poisonous. When they also discovered a radioactive and hazardous wastes storehouse in their neighborhood, they banded together as the Toxic AVENGERS and organized 100 neighbors for a protest march. Coming next: a town meeting to spur further community action.
In California, the MOTHERS OF EAST LOS ANGELES sued the state to halt construction of an incinerator in their Latino neighborhood. "It would have emitted chemicals bad for kids and pregnant ladies," says Juana Gutierrez, 57, the mother of nine, who co-founded the group. Adds Aurora Castillo, a sexagenarian campaigner: "We used to say we can't fight the government. But we are the government."
In a Chicano section of Albuquerque, N.Mex., JEANNE GAUNA, 43, analyzed a 1985 health survey and found that nearly all of her neighbors suffered rashes, respiratory problems or both. Discovering that sawdust from a nearby particle-board factory was tainted with formaldehyde, the community roused regulatory agencies to force the factory to limit its emissions.
Rural communities, too, are digging in. A fourth-grade class in Savannah, Mo., raised newts, turtles and catfish. But at the Missouri River tributary where they planned to release the 12 indigenous species, the children found the shore littered and the water polluted with soil runoff from an adjoining farm. They picked up the trash, planted hundreds of willows to hold the river banks and persuaded the farmer to stop plowing nearby. Teacher SHERRI STRATING, 41, applauds her students. "They really put some challenges to me. One of my little girls says, 'We're the adults of the future. If nothing is done about this now, we're not going to have anything later.' "
Pat Bryant, 43, a Louisianian who heads the GULF COAST TENANTS ORGANIZATION, estimates that a half billion pounds of toxic chemicals a year are spewed over a 75-mile strip between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. An 11-day march down "Cancer Alley" prodded 1989 legislation to control emissions. Says Bryant: "The poisoned are the only ones with the power to stop the poisoning."
When the L.A. Board of Ed. rejected a recycling plan from North Hollywood High senior ALLEN GRAVES II, 18, he was incensed: "A planet is being stolen from 10 million teenagers." After calls, letters and an impassioned plea, he got the board to reverse itself and for his efforts won the President's Environmental Youth Award. "Kids are always told what not to do," says Graves. "But when you tell them they can make a difference, you've created an incredible amount of energy."
While celebrities and scientists worry about the ozone, Jose Morales of New York City has a more local concern: residential pollution. "Who's going to live closer to the factory," he asks rhetorically, "the factory owner or the worker?" With toxins lurking right next door these days, Americans have begun a movement to re-green their own backyards.