The number of days where Colorado officials have called an “air quality action day,” meaning children and vulnerable populations are advised to avoid outdoor exertion, have risen from 18 in 2014 to 55 last year.
Going along with fossil fuel dependent utilities and coal, oil and gas companies also mean shortened lives within Indigenous, Black, brown, and low-income communities, people already breathing in a heavier share of pollution from the fossil fuel industry. That’s children getting asthma from breathing in highway fumes, people developing cancer living next to coal plants, or disadvantaged coastal areas exposed to deadly floods and storms. coal also poisons the air of nearby communities with particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen oxides, and mercury. More than 75 percent of the 2 million people who live within 3 miles of the most toxic plants are people of color earning on average $14,626 per year, according to a NAACP study. When you’re exposed to toxic air pollution it causes long-term chronic medical conditions—everything from liver and kidney diseases, heart disease, cancer clusters, lung diseases. —or creating opportunities for Black people to own, not just work at, the green companies that will lessen our dependence on oil, coal, and gas.
“Although socio-economic status appeared to play an important role in the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities, race still proved to be more significant,” it concluded in the seminal report “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States.”
The same zoning decisions that excluded Black people from more desirable white neighborhoods were also exposing them to life-shortening chemicals and pollution.
Black people were more worried about the quality of their environment than white people, a trend that still persists today.
Yet even with these horrifying revelations there was a perception that Black people didn’t care about environmental issues as much as white people. “I heard that assertion a lot, but I didn’t see any data really to prove it,” Paul Mohai, a professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan, told VICE News. He pored through large national data sets in the late 1980s and found that by several measures—including the desire for more government money to be spent cleaning up air and water—Black people were more worried about the quality of their environment than white people, a trend that still persists today. “That was an eye-opener,” he said.
Instead of joining national green organizations like the Sierra Club, Wright said, Black people were more likely to work with local civil rights groups that connected pollution to a legacy of racism. In 1991, hundreds of Black, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian activists from across the U.S. who also shared this wider perspective met in Washington, D.C., for the first ever People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. “Delegates were shaken by the reports of widespread poisoning, oppression, and devastation that communities of color are experiencing—including water, air, and land contamination, which cause cancers, leukemia, birth defects, and miscarriages,” reads a dispatch from the event.
The summit set off changes that helped introduce “key buzzwords like ‘environmental justice’ and ‘environmental racism’ into the legal, political, economic, and social institutions in the United States,” according to the Southwest Research and Information Center. And the 17 “principles of environmental justice” that delegates adopted are now the moral and political foundation for thousands of grassroots organizations around the world, including the Climate Justice Alliance and the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum; more recently, they helped guide Elizabeth Warren’s plans for fighting climate change.
One of the summit’s lead organizers was an activist named Damu Smith, whose strategy for achieving racial justice can today be heard in the Green New Deal legislation proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Though Smith died from cancer in 2006 and is now barely known to a new generation of climate activists, people such as Mustafa Santiago Ali with the National Wildlife Federation see Smith as a civil rights organizer comparable to Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez. “You’ll one day find him in textbooks and people will be studying his techniques,” said Santiago Ali, who is on the National Black Environmental Justice Network’s steering committee.
“No community should be poisoned, no community should be disproportionally exposed, no community should be subject to things that make us die.”
Born in St. Louis in 1951, Smith was raised by working-class parents—his dad was a fireman and his mom was a nurse—in a public housing complex. “Much of what I am today has been shaped by the fact that I grew up in not wretchedly poor surroundings but we struggled,” he would later recall. “I know what it is to go to school without heat at home and study by candlelight and not have enough money to get adequate clothes.”
Later, as a high school student, he made two visits to Cairo, Illinois, to attend Black Solidarity Day rallies. While there he listened to speeches from people including Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone, and Jesse Jackson and visited an area where white supremacists had fired guns at Black people’s homes. “The visits to Cairo totally transformed my life,” Smith later said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography. “I made my decision on the bus leaving there that I would commit my life to the movement of social justice and Black rights.”
In 1973, Smith moved to Washington D.C., and for the next three decades worked on a huge range of activist campaigns, opposing police brutality, nuclear war, gun violence, South African apartheid, and U.S. imperialism. Smith believed the root cause of these problems was a system where one group of people attempted to dominate another. And this was especially true for pollution.
“While everybody on the planet is suffering from toxic contamination, there are some communities that have been targeted…based on race and income,” he once explained. Smith argued the best way to oppose “environmental racism” was to build a protest movement capable of pressuring politicians that united Americans across age, race, gender, and regional lines—this was one reason for him helping organize the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit.
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“No community should be poisoned, no community should be disproportionally exposed, no community should be subject to things that make us die,” he said.
People who knew Smith said he had a talent for turning the specific grievance of a community into a universal call for justice—and he could do it in a way that disarmed people’s defences and made them eager to show up for the fight. “There’s a lot of dogmatism in movements, a lot of finger-wagging, a lot of angry voices, but with Damu, he met you where you were,” said John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA from 2000 to 2008. “You could see his brain going, ‘How am I going to bring these issues into your reality?’”
Santiago Ali first met Smith at the 1991 Environmental Leadership summit. Then early in his career, Santiago Ali was impressed with a speech Smith had given and approached him in the hallway. “Damu took the time to sit down with me, learn about where I was from, and he started to drop knowledge,” Santiago Ali said. This was Smith’s approach no matter how much or little social status you had. “He could navigate in any situation and hold folks accountable but also make them feel comfortable at the same time,” Santiago Ali recalled. “In my estimation, he’s one of the greatest organizers that this country has ever had.”
Smith worked with Greenpeace throughout the 1990s to assist Black communities fighting chemical pollution in and around Cancer Alley. This put him in close contact with Wright, who by then had founded and was leading the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
Among their top priorities was confronting Shell, which operated a huge chemical complex bordering the Black neighbourhood of Diamond in the town of Norco. In 1973, there was an unreported gas leak and when Leroy Jones started his lawnmower it ignited the gas, burning him and another resident alive. Another leak in 1998 caused a “cloudy-white mist” to fall on the community, making people sick. “Some residents reported a smell like burnt garlic; others felt the skin tighten on their faces,” reads an account of the incident by Steve Lerner, author of Diamond: A Struggle for Environmental Justice in Louisiana’s Chemical Corridor.
ROBERT BULLARD, BEVERLY WRIGHT, AND DAMU SMITH (MIDDLE ROW) PROTEST AGAINST THE SHINTECH CHEMICAL PLANT IN ST. JAMES PARISH IN 1997. PHOTO COURTESY OF BEVERLY WRIGHT
Wright’s group provided education and training to residents demanding Shell help them relocate by purchasing their homes. Diamond had existed before Shell set up its complex, and now that people’s houses were next to a refinery it was very difficult to sell them. “People are locked into these toxic prisons,” Smith had said.
The involvement of Greenpeace in the battle brought national media attention. “I knew we could embarrass (Shell) to death with the combination of race and toxics,” he explained. “I knew that if we exploited that reality that ultimately we could win.” Shell eventually offered to buy out up to 400 Diamond residents, but continued to release cancer-causing chemicals.
Meanwhile Wright was putting out the word for other Black communities seeking help to get in touch. “We started getting calls and the calls never stopped,” she said. “We were up to like 15 communities, all of them living in horrible conditions, and then we realized it wasn’t just in Louisiana, it was all over Texas, it was all over the South. Then we got calls from California. It seemed like an emergency to us.” In 1999, she and Smith helped set up a meeting in New Orleans for Black-led organizations fighting environmental racism. From that, the National Black Environmental Justice Network was formed.
One of the battles the network got involved with was in Dickson County, Tennessee, where members of a Black homestead were fighting the local government for putting a landfill just over 50 feet from where they lived, and then failing to warn them that it was leaking toxic chemicals into their drinking water—while cleaning up the water of nearby white families.
“We are all sick and the government seems to be waiting for us to die,” said homestead resident Sheila Holt-Orsted, who has experienced breast cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and gastrointestinal disorder. Bullard would later deem Dickson County “the ‘poster child’ for environmental racism.” In 2003, the Holt family filed a lawsuit against the city and county, which was settled in 2011 with 12 family members receiving $1.75 million. A separate lawsuit resulted in $7,500 each for nine other family members.
The network helped change federal policy, advising the Environmental Protection Agency on programs specifically addressing the needs of communities of color. “There was a big voice coming from the National Black Environmental Justice Network and many of its members,” recalled Santiago Ali, who worked at the EPA for 24 years. “They were helping to push for all those things that now people point to as foundational inside the government.”
But just as it was gaining influence and momentum, the network started to unravel. While on a peace mission to Palestine in March 2005, Smith collapsed and had a seizure. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was an especially rough year for Wright, because in August, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, killing nearly 2,000 people and flooding her home with 8 feet of water while leaving an alligator in the backyard pool. “Damu called me and sent me an email talking about how sorry he was that this had happened and how much he wished that he could be more involved,” Wright said. But by then his health was in serious decline.
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Wright’s own life was upside down: “After Katrina, trying to get back to the city was awful for Black people and we still haven’t fully recovered.” Seven years after the disaster, the average white household was earning income of $60,000, a 40 percent jump from before, while for Black households average income declined to $30,000.
Smith died in 2006 at the age of 54. “Even though he’s 10 years older than me, he looked young,” Passacantando said. “He was a fanatic about eating good food. When a guy like that gets sick it sort of flips your whole universe upside down. How could he possibly get sick? I think that’s one of the reasons people were so shocked. He was so into healthy eating, and then out of nowhere he gets this cancer and then disappears. It was horrifying.”
Wright felt a huge range of emotions. “I was angry with him because his father died of colon cancer, and Damu just didn’t go to the doctor. I was upset at him for not taking better care of himself.”
With the anger came grief. “I’m telling you, we were depressed; that knocked the wind out of us,” she said. Wright, like the network’s other leaders, was also running her own organization. Only Smith had been singularly focused on fundraising and growing the network’s influence. With him gone, Wright struggled to keep it going. “Eventually we just gave up,” she said.
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Not long after, national environmental groups partnered with Democrats, fossil fuel companies, and some Republicans to get a cap-and-trade bill passed by Congress. The smaller Black-led groups Wright’s network had represented were mostly excluded from those discussions. And they saw little reason to celebrate when the House passed legislation imposing a limit on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, because companies that exceeded the limit could pay a fine and then keep contaminating the air and water of non-white communities. (A 2016 study concluded that California’s state-level version of cap-and-trade “did nothing to alleviate the toxic pollution facing communities of color,” Time reported.)
But after cap-and-trade legislation died in the Senate in 2010, it created a political opening for a more confrontational, race-and-income-aware style of activism. Throughout the decade, Indigenous peoples led fights against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and groups representing communities disproportionately exposed to the climate emergency came together as the Climate Justice Alliance in 2013.
“I am so hopeful. But we’ve been hopeful before.”
The Green New Deal proposed by millennial congressperson Ocasio-Cortez in early 2019 channeled the demand for climate solutions that would address the specific vulnerabilities of Black, brown, Indigenous, and lower-income white people by proposing trillions of dollars of green investments in disadvantaged communities. The mass political movement that activists like Smith had once called for—uniting Americans across generational, racial, and wealth divides to address environmental disparities—appeared to be finally taking shape.
By early 2020, Wright, Bullard, and others were having talks about relaunching the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Those conversations took on unexpected urgency when the coronavirus arrived. Wright couldn’t understand why St. John Parish, a largely Black community outside of New Orleans, had one of the highest per capita death rates from COVID-19 in the country. But then researchers at Harvard University published a study in April finding that breathing air pollution can make you more susceptible to the virus.
It all clicked for her—St. John Parish is in the heart of Cancer Alley, right near where her and Smith fought a chemical plant decades earlier. “The Harvard study comes out and I’m like, ‘OK, now I understand,’” she said. “Black people are dying because of where we live.”
When the network relaunched in June, it felt to Wright like the pollution battles of the 1990s and 2000s all over again—but in some ways worse. Today, race is still the biggest predictor of how exposed a community is to health-destroying emissions and chemicals. But Black people are also being hammered with heavy job losses due to the coronavirus—the unemployment rate for Black people between age 16 to 19 is nearly 35 percent, compared to 28.3 percent for white people of the same age. And Black communities remain dangerously exposed to torrential rains, river flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, and other forms of climate chaos.
“People of my age group are so angry,” Wright said. After dedicating her life to fighting racial disparities, she lamented, “Why are we in the same place? We’ve actually lost some of the progress.”
She thinks there is a once-in-a-generation chance to turn things around in November, however. Millions of Americans are taking a hard look at systemic injustice. The climate movement is finally putting people of color at its center. Biden has endorsed most of the fundamental principles of a Green New Deal, if not explicitly in name, promising to phase out industries that are poisoning Black people and replace them with millions of green jobs.
“This is our opportunity,” Wright said. “Everything hinges on this election.”
Gina Ridgway, a 5th grader and the student council president at Sabin World Elementary School in Denver, helped launch a student campaign against air pollution, which studies show disproportionately impacts children.
Photo by Michael BoothLeer en
By Michael Booth
Denver health and education officials now know which public schools have the worst student asthma rates. Most are concentrated along the I-70 corridor and in neighborhoods challenged by lower incomes, higher numbers of uninsured residents and other troubling health indicators.
Yet there is no coordination of student protection policies—keeping kids inside during recess when needed, for example—across Denver Public Schools (DPS) on bad air-quality days, with decisions left up to individual school leaders.
Air quality officials estimate it costs $3,100 a year to treat a DPS student with asthma, totaling $30 million in costs for the 9,700 students diagnosed with the respiratory affliction.
As the Denver metro area sees an increasing threat to air quality from car traffic, spiking ground ozone concentration on hot days, and new oil, gas and construction projects that can worsen particulate pollution, a cross-institutional team is attacking the school dilemma with a new sensor network and health analytics.
The City of Denver’s environmental health division has teamed with National Jewish Health, a respiratory medicine leader, and other partners to begin installing particulate sensors at 40 schools with the highest asthma rates by the end of 2021. DPS health officials will run a parallel effort to correlate student sick days and use of asthma inhalers—which requires a visit to the school health office and an incident record—with daily air-quality data.
Results could inform policymakers about how pollution spikes directly affect children, as well as families or school leaders looking for day-to-day direction. (Preliminary National Jewish research has found increased inhaler use among children two to three days after air pollution increases.)
The local research will add knowledge to consistent national and international studies showing that air pollution tends to affect some populations much more than others.
“On average, non-Hispanic whites experience a ‘pollution advantage’: They experience ∼17% less air pollution exposure than is caused by their consumption,” wrote a group of scientists from the National Academy of Sciences in a March 2019 study. Conversely, “Blacks and Hispanics on average bear a ‘pollution burden’ of 56% and 63% excess exposure, respectively, relative to the exposure caused by their consumption.”
“The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants and who may experience greater responses to such pollution,” according to the American Lung Association. “Low socioeconomic status consistently increased the risk of premature death from fine particle pollution among 13.2 million Medicare recipients studied in the largest examination of particle pollution-related mortality nationwide.”
The association said scientists attribute the disparities to possible factors such as housing discrimination that place people of color closer to pollution sources; exposure to dirtier workplaces or higher automobile traffic volume; and health factors like diabetes, which disproportionately affects some populations, increasing the impact risk from air pollutants.
Denver schools receiving the first wave of air quality monitors include Bruce Randolph, Fairview, Garden Place, Gust, High Tech Early Learning College, Sabin, South, Swansea and University Prep-Steele.
The consortium is also working through neighborhood focus groups and other study methods to find more effective ways to illustrate available air-quality data so that school officials and families can make more informed health decisions.
“Asthma in Denver is a big deal,” said Michael Ogletree, air program manager in Denver’s Department of Public Health & Environment, which is overseeing the new sensor installations under a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Mayors Challenge. “The lifelong health and economic cost of asthma is significant, and something that will impact your quality of life, for your entire life, and we really want to address that within our population.”
DPS central administration officials said they do not have a uniform policy for shutting down outdoor recess or other breath-saving changes on high air-pollution days.
“I don’t have a perfect answer for this question for you. I think that in years past, it hasn’t come to the forefront that this was so much of an issue,” said Kathrine Hale, DPS manager of nursing and student health services.
DPS officials are hoping to learn more about the extent of the problem from the new Bloomberg-funded monitoring system; they say schools are given a menu of options on how to handle air quality.
Kirsten Frassanito, principal of Sabin World Elementary in southwest Denver, where a monitor will be hooked up and displaying information by fall, said principals are engaged but don’t have resources to make big changes.
“We just don’t have a lot of alternatives to sending kids outside to play,” said Frassanito, whose gym feels packed with 25 kids tossing balls around. “We don’t have the infrastructure in the building to have the kids do anything other than watching something in the auditorium.”
Some Denver students have taken the air quality questions into their own hands. Gina Ridgeway is a 5th grader at Sabin and president of the student council, and has launched a campaign to get more students riding bikes or walking, or for their parents to stop idling cars for long periods at the school entrances.
“You’re hurting your child’s breath!” said Ridgeway, whose brother was diagnosed with asthma, and who has classmates with breathing issues. “I don’t know if today is a bad air day—where would I even get that information?”
Ridgeway thinks parents will listen to posters made by their children, even if they ignore the more bureaucratic “no idling” signs already hung around school grounds. She is also pushing for more “bike pools” and “walking pools” where kids and parents feel safest in numbers.
Ridgeway was adamant that even a new air monitor with a nice visual display is not enough. Students, parents and the schools need to actually do something about pollution, she said: “Don’t just give the problem to others.”
The neighborhoods that Denver and National Jewish are trying to help first have long been a focus of health inequities. Denver put out a 2014 Health Impact Assessment for Globeville and Elyria-Swansea that said children in the neighborhoods went to the emergency room for asthma at significantly higher rates than other Denver communities. The assessment also found that more than half the adults in the area are overweight or obese, higher than the rest of Denver; that adults are only about half as physically active as the rest of Denver; and that local schoolchildren exercised less than recommended.
Health concerns in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea and other lower-income neighborhoods are compounded by a lack of sidewalks and bike lanes or shoulders; low ratios of park space; and heavy industrial and construction traffic.
Activists along the I-70 corridor north of downtown—which is being widened in a massive, multi-year redevelopment project that promises to significantly increase automobile traffic volume through the area—say those health issues layer upon decades of industrial abuse of lower-income neighborhoods through smelting, refining and other high-emission activities.
The new efforts on particulate pollution—made up primarily of auto emissions, road and construction dust, wood burning or forest fires, industrial and power soot and ash—come as Colorado also renews efforts to attack ground-level ozone, another measured pollutant that harms asthma sufferers and other vulnerable populations.
While other federally regulated pollutants have trended downward in recent decades, ozone has been a persistent problem for the Front Range. While annual ozone averages continue to trend downward, hot weather can produce more daily spikes that put Denver over Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. The EPA lowered its acceptable ozone limits in 2015, putting Denver in violation on more days.
The number of days where Colorado officials have called an “air quality action day,” meaning children and vulnerable populations are advised to avoid outdoor exertion, have risen from 18 in 2014 to 55 last year, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) staff.
Population and car traffic are growing, oil and gas drillers set up more suburban operations, and summer wildfire smoke blows in from across the West. Sunlight cooks the emissions stew over the metro area, while weather patterns wedge the mix up against the foothills of Boulder, Jefferson and Larimer counties.
“That’s not where the ozone is being produced, but that’s where it goes,” said Gordon Pierce, air quality technical services program manager at CDPHE. The state health department monitors air quality and gives technical and policy advice to the Air Quality Control Commission, which makes policy and regulatory decisions about reducing pollutants.
Colorado in May will likely be bumped into the violation category of “serious” when it reports a new year of results to the EPA.
Such a designation would trigger new efforts to restrict industries and other sources of ozone-causing pollutants, doubling down on recent state efforts to reduce methane gas leaks from petroleum drilling, switch to alternative-energy generation and promote zero-emission vehicles. New restrictions could include tightening of permits to hundreds of industrial polluters.
Past policy changes have cut some ozone production, including Colorado’s strict vehicle emissions monitoring, retiring of older, dirtier cars, and closure of coal-fired power plants in the metro area.
“Things do look worse because the standard has dropped over time, not because air quality is getting worse,” Pierce said. “But we do have to meet these requirements.”
Because of natural and out-of-state weather patterns and influences, Colorado’s options on ozone are more limited than Los Angeles and other cities that have made cuts, Pierce said. The newer EPA standard is 70 parts per billion, while Colorado monitors often record 40 to 50 ppb of “background” ozone caused by far-off sources such as wildfires, massive southwestern power plants, or even drifting air pollution from industrialized China.
Thus, “We only have a small amount we can work on controlling in the metro area,” Pierce said. “That’s why our numbers haven’t been able to drop as much as some of the coastal cities.”
On particulates, Pierce said, Colorado does have days where it spikes above recommended levels, but EPA standards are based on longer-term averages and the state is still in “attainment” for particulates.
National Jewish is in the middle of an extensive effort to make the air quality battle more personal.
The respiratory hospital and research center has a Denver Children’s Environmental Health Center, and a community advisory board concerned about pollution questions in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, said project leader Lisa Cicutto, MD. They got EPA funding for personal PM2.5 monitors that hang around a volunteer’s neck and measure both outdoor and indoor exposures. (PM2.5 refers to airborne particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter. That’s about 1/40 the width of a human hair.)
The project also set up outdoor ambient monitors at 12 sites so that “official” outdoor data could be correlated with results from the personal monitors. Twenty neighborhood residents wore the monitors for 72 consecutive hours in each of three seasons, starting last summer, with the winter cohort completed in February.
“Our ultimate goal is to have citizens be able to access and make sense of the data for informed choices,” Cicutto said.
Before the monitoring began, researchers convened focus groups to get a baseline of what people understood about air quality information and pollution sources, and what they wanted to know for their family’s health. After the monitoring stage, researchers will work on creating new dashboards and other dissemination methods that make air quality information more useful to residents.
Current air quality information and advice is confusing for everyone, let alone busy families and those using English as a second language. “When you say PM2.5, a lot of people think that means 2:30 in the afternoon,” Cicutto said. “There were a lot of lessons learned. For those who have conditions, they don’t like being called ‘vulnerable’ and ‘sensitive.’”
One purpose of the personal monitors is to show people what indoor sources they can control. It’s usually a big eye-opener for any family, Cicutto said. People are exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 when they cook without venting, vacuum, use candles, use aerosol-based kitchen cleaners, apply makeup, and smoke or vape cannabis or tobacco. An encouraging development, Cicutto said, was how much more engaged the volunteers were in their second season of monitoring after getting coached on the results from their first season.
National Jewish is also sharing the results of its “gold standard” ambient outdoor monitors with state monitors, to better assess the accuracy of Front Range pollutant counts. “We do know that once (pollution) gets into the red, the monitors tend to underestimate it,” Cicutto said. (The state follows the EPA’s color-coded, six-tier rating system for the air quality index, or AQI; red is considered an unhealthy AQI for all groups.) Researchers will work with equipment manufacturers and the state to interpret results, she said.
Finding better ways to engage the public on daily air monitoring is crucial to health, said Joann Strother, director of advocacy in the western division of the American Lung Association. “Especially to children—their lungs have not yet grown to their full potential and they spend a lot of time outdoors,” she said. “We want parents to know air quality can be harmful, and to keep track of those high days.”
Researchers are also learning, though, that policy or health advice solutions are no simpler than the measurements themselves. Some school leaders or neighborhood activists might want the clear, absolutist policy change—keep all kids indoors on poor air-quality days. But that’s not necessarily what families want when they participate in focus groups on air pollution, Cicutto said.
“When they weighed the pros and cons, they felt at the lower levels, going outside to exercise might be better than keeping them indoors,” Cicutto said. “And if you keep inside the kids with asthma? They were afraid of stigmatizing their child. So how we actually roll these recommendations into what we know from science is going to have to be explored more, and it’s going to have to be nuanced.”
Globeville residents say their fears become much more tangible on winter days when the notorious “brown cloud” smog returns. Again, the Front Range geography and weather patterns contribute, with warm convection air on the ground bumping up against a cold-air layer coming across the mountains, creating a meteorological inversion and leaving a visible smear of ozone, smoke, dust and other particles.
“I spent 2015 and ‘16 in Beijing, with its famous smog problem,” said Globeville resident Laura Shunk. “I often quelled my anxieties there with the idea, ‘I won’t be here forever, I’m eventually going back to a place where there’s cleaner air.’ And [in early March] we hit 150 on the [AQI] scale here—and in Beijing at 150 they said you should wear a mask. I thought, I don’t want this to happen to Denver.” (In the EPA air quality index, 150 is the lower border of that infamous “red” zone.)
Colorado’s more volatile winter this season created more of the high-profile brown cloud days, though emissions themselves were not as volatile, said Jonathan Samet, MD, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health and an epidemiologist specializing in inhaled pollutants.
Global concerns about air pollution have been growing even as most U.S. metro areas have reduced most measured pollutants, Samet said. The World Health Organization has called air pollution “the new smoking,” based in part on recent studies that expanded estimates of how much disability and death is due to air pollution over time.
“I wouldn’t want to sound a huge alarm at Denver’s levels,” Samet said. “That said, if I had a child with severe asthma, I would be concerned when levels are high, and the right thing to do is keep them indoors.”
As for ozone, Samet added, researchers are now learning that sensitivity varies greatly and is linked to genetic factors. “I’m not sure we fully understand the data yet,” he said.
Globeville resident Shunk appreciates the renewed emphasis on pollution measurements for her neighborhood, but knows the eventual big-picture solutions will be difficult.
“Giving a school a sensor is nice, but without actually taking steps to really deal with the problem—taking cars off the road—I don’t know that those rates go down,” she said. “As a city, we haven’t thought about it in so long, I do think there’s an education component to this—that this is bad, and it’s headed in a bad direction.”
Michael BoothWriterDenver, Colorado
Ned Calonge, MD, MPH, President & CEO, Colorado Trust
Tirzah Camacho, Regional Associate – Southwest Colorado
Jose Luis Chavez – Regional Associate – West Central Colorado
Martha Girón-Correa – Regional Associate – North & Northeast Colorado
Felisa Gonzales, PhD, MPH – Research, Evaluation & Strategic Learning Manager. Felisa hails from the San Luis Valley
Duane L. Gurule – Regional Associate – Southeast Colorado. Duane and his family live in Rocky Ford, Colo. He has a passion for helping low-income communities. His background in the IT industry have helped him develop a vision of promoting health equity in rural areas by leveraging the same technology that has driven Colorado’s growth along the Front Range.
Amanda Guerrero – Southeast Colorado – Amanda was born and raised in Pueblo, Colo., where she co-owns a yoga studio (having taught yoga for 10 years) and remains an active community member. She holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Colorado Boulder, and a M.Sc. in Global Energy Management from the University of Colorado Denver School of Business.
Saira Yasmin HamidiSenior Community Organizer – North/Northeast Colorado. Saira brings her background in community organizing, international philanthropy, global education and social justice theatre to The Trust. She is an abolition feminist and passionate agitator committed to racial justice and liberation for all. Creativity and collaboration are among two of her core values.
Jess Hedden – Community Partner – Northwest Colorado. Before working at The Trust, Jess worked in both the Eagle County and Garfield County public health departments with a focus on strengthening community partnerships. She lives in New Castle.
Alejandra Hernandez – Community Partnerships Program Assistant – Alejandra was born and raised in Denver, and holds a B.A. in feminist and gender studies from Colorado College. Prior to joining The Trust, she interned at The Denver Foundation’s Strengthening Neighborhoods Program.
Monica Hernandez – Community Partner – Southeast Colorado. Monica brings a statewide government lens from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, where she coached various communities around the state to mobilize and build public support towards systems-level changes to create healthier communities. Monica lives in Pueblo
Candace Johnson – Community Partner – Denver Metro Area – Before joining The Trust, Candace was the organizing director at Colorado Jobs with Justice. Her background is in community organizing and advocacy.
Julian Kesner – Vice President of Communications – Julian previously oversaw communications at the Colorado Hospital Association, and managed public relations at Nurse-Family Partnership. He was also a reporter at the New York Daily News and senior editor at Prevention Magazine.
Lorena Maldonado – Executive Administrative Assistant to the CEO. Prior to joining The Trust in 2015, Lorena worked at the Hispanic Chamber Foundation and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for 8 years, in various capacities. She lives in Thornton
Krista Martinez – Community Partner – North & Northeast Colorado (Ft. Collins) Krista is dedicated to compassionate, courageous community transformation. She has facilitated equity-focused strategic planning, coalition and network building, and collective visioning. She holds community dialogue and provides coaching around racial justice, power and equity. Her life pursuit is the co-creation of genuine opportunities for healing justice and collective joy through embodied liberation
Tori Martinez – Regional Associate – South Central Colorado – Tori holds degrees from Arizona State University and Adams State University. She is a social scientist and previously directed the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. Tori and her sweetheart live in the San Luis Valley.
Françoise MbabaziRegional Associate – Denver Metro Area
Originally from Rwanda, Françoise holds a master’s degree in gender studies from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree from United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. She is a passionate human rights activist and community engagement leader with over 10 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, with previous leadership development and management positions at several Colorado policy organizations. Françoise is committed to education equity, economic justice, social justice, poverty reduction, and empowering women and girls.
Patricia Maynes, PHRSenior Administrative Assistant & Human Resources Professional. Patricia has over 20 years of experience as an executive assistant in the private and nonprofit sectors. She holds a degree in workforce diversity enrichment from Metropolitan State University of Denver. Patricia resides in Lakewood.
Mia Ramirez – Community Partner – Colorado Springs and surrounding five counties. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, Mia has a passion for improving community health. Mia earned a Masters of Public Health degree from Boston University and has over 15 years of community health experience working both nationally and internationally, from the grassroots level to the federal and international health agency level.
Sol TafoyaCommunity Organizer, East Pueblo, Sol has lived in Pueblo for the past 15 years. Sol brings her passion for organizing, social justice and racial equity; she has 10 years of experience in the government sector.
email@example.com, went to Macalester College