At age 14, Paul Stretesky spent a summer working alongside Hispanic migrant workers at a greenhouse in Aurora that grew carnations. One of their jobs was to put their hands in large sacks of powdered chemicals to make pesticides to spray over the flowers. Paul knew from the skull and crossbones symbol on the bags that the powders were toxic. Against the orders of the bosses, he used a stick to mix the chemicals. The other workers used their hands.
While attending Colorado State University as an undergraduate, Stretesky worked for a nationally acclaimed forensic anthropologist, Dr. Michael Charney, who conducted facial reconstruction and bone identification from evidence found at crime scenes.
Those two experiences put Stretesky on a path of academic study that few have followed. Stretesky has become a pioneer in a new field called green criminology, which focuses on environmental harm, crime, law, regulation, victimization and justice. Since his graduate school years at Florida State University, Stretesky has focused on the causes and impact of environmental hazards and crime, what is being done to prevent future harm and how all of this affects historically marginalized communities. Today, the associate professor at the School of Public Affairs is nationally known for his prolific work and expertise. His publications include two books and more than 50 peer-reviewed studies and book chapters.
“I want to understand better how environmental enforcement is carried out, what we can do to improve it and what we can do to increase equality in terms of enforcement,” Stretesky says. “It’s clear that not everyone suffers from environmental crime equally.”
One study that received widespread attention was a 2001 analysis of lead contamination and homicide rates. Stretesky and his research partners obtained data from the Environmental Protection Agency about lead contamination across the United States and looked at the effect of lead on homicide. Their study controlled for all other air pollution sources as well as social factors, including poverty and race.
“If you look at medical literature, it’s full of descriptions about the relationship between lead and aggression, that lead lowers IQ, which may lead to aggression in children,” Stretesky says.
The study determined a strong correlation between areas of high lead contamination and high homicide rates. For Stretesky, there was a clear message from this study, that “we should put money into cleaning up the environment as a crime prevention technique.”
That work led to analyzing how environmental crimes were committed in the first place. He began studies of corporate environmental crime, funded in part by a grant from the EPA. He studied corporations that came forward to report environmental violations. What he found was that the majority of self-policing activity involved minor violations, such as failing to file reports. Stretesky also studied the factors that relate to clean water law violations associated with mountaintop removal operations by corporations doing surface mining.
More recently, Stretesky has turned his focus on efforts to prevent environmental crime. He looked at scores of environmental advocacy groups across the United States, how they were created and where they are located in comparison to environmental hazard sites. He found that these organizations are generally located in major urban cities, like New York and San Francisco, where major resources and civil rights organizations already exist. The study found that there was little correlation between the location of these groups and the areas where there is the most need for advocacy.
He recently was named North American editor of the international journal Green Criminology and is editor of a new series of books to be published on the topic by Ashgate Publishing.
Stretesky teaches a graduate course in environmental crime and justice and an undergraduate course in statistics.