Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, an urban landscape of metal and concrete, Miguel Mendez had limited access to open spaces, and always dreamed of traveling. Yet there in the city, he got his first introduction to environmentalism.
“In some of the places I lived in Chicago, environmental activists are fighting air pollution and the limitation on parks,” Mendez says. Many of those groups have been there for years, and as he grew up, Mendez internalized the importance of preserving and advocating for a safe environment for all communities.
When he was about to enter ninth grade, Mendez applied for a scholarship to an environmentally focused high school. So instead of walking into a classroom his freshman year, he found himself trekking into the Sylvania Wilderness, an expanse of pristine, protected lands within the Ottawa National Forest on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Everything about wilderness school was different from the urban life he had left in Chicago, from where he slept—Mendez spent one night in an igloo on a frozen lake—to the community that surrounded him. “The only other people of color that I knew were the students who were also part of my scholarship program,” Mendez says.
Still, he welcomed the opportunity to immerse himself in nature. “I think of that time at boarding school as where I got my spark for the environment,” Mendez says.
That spark caught fire as Mendez went on to study chemistry at Williams College, focusing much of his academic coursework and senior thesis on environmental justice. His chemistry thesis examined paper-based sensors for mercury and arsenic designed to be low-cost and user-friendly. Mendez explored the applications of these sensors with the hope that they could serve as a tool for communities to easily assess their own water quality and advocate for change.
Mendez went on to earn his master’s degree in environmental engineering at Stanford before beginning working at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) in 2020. At the SFEI, Mendez focuses primarily on PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, synthetic “forever” chemicals that do not break down easily in the environment. PFAS occur in many consumer products, including cosmetics, clothing and cookware. Mendez is currently analyzing the levels of PFAS in wastewater treatment facilities in the Bay Area.
Mendez and his fellow researchers found relatively low amounts of PFAS in municipal wastewater and biosolids, byproducts of the wastewater treatment process. However, “one of the key problems with PFAS is that even though we may be seeing them at low levels, they’re extremely persistent” and pose a health risk to humans, potentially causing damage to the liver and immune system, he explains.
Mendez is currently attempting to identify potential sources of PFAS in Bay Area wastewater treatment facilities by zooming in on specific wastewater discharges. Laundromats, food waste industries, and semi-conductor manufacturing could be contributing to elevated PFAS levels, Mendez explains. He is also beginning to analyze PFAS concentrations in wastewater flows in residential areas. “That will give us an indication of how much of this might be coming directly from our faucets.”
Recently, as part of a larger report produced by the SFEI, Mendez helped develop conceptual models that illustrate how plastic moves through the environment. “The pandemic increased our dependence on single-use plastics,” Mendez says, in turn increasing plastic waste. In one of the models Mendez and his team developed, single-use plastic foodware ends up on land as litter, where rainfall or runoff then carries the plastic and other pollutants into the stormwater system. In most cases, stormwater is not treated before being discharged into urban waterways or directly to the ocean. Through this pathway, plastic may be degraded, forming smaller plastics pieces including microplastics. The report Mendez and his colleagues produced helped inform California’s strategy for addressing microplastics, a two-pronged approach that includes immediate solutions to manage plastic waste and a longer-term research agenda.
Though Mendez focuses on particles and chemicals smaller than the naked eye can perceive, he never loses sight of the larger context. Witnessing how environmental hazards like PFAS, microplastics, and other contaminants disproportionately affect certain communities, Mendez makes a concerted effort to reach and educate these audiences.
As California launched its microplastics plan, Mendez partnered with the Spanish-language network Telemundo to provide Spanish language interviews and share the science across language barriers. “As a person of color in the environmental field, it’s really important to highlight these types of studies…to a wider audience,” Mendez says.
Mendez knows firsthand that communities of color are often exposed to environmental dangers that are under-researched and unaddressed by government and policy organizations. Reflecting on his childhood in Chicago, Mendez describes a massive smokestack he walked by every day. “Now I look retrospectively and can see the different environmental hazards [around me] when I was young.”
From a young age, Miguel Mendez learned about the value of the natural world from environmental activists in his own community, and he continues to push that work forward today. “I ask the science to speak for itself,” he says. “Through science we can find avenues to make an impact.”
Top image: Miguel Mendez speaking to a reporter on Spanish language network Telemundo. Photo: Telemundo