LSLA’s EJ team recently had a chance to talk with Air Alliance Houston’s Bakeyah Nelson, Ph.D. – one of our community partners.  Read on to learn about Air Alliance Houston as we begin a series called, “What’s In My Air?” where we take a closer look at air pollution in LSLA’s service area.

LSLA: Hi Bakeyah, and thanks for joining us.  First, can you tell us a little about your organization, Air Alliance Houston?  What kind of services does your organization provide – what do you do?

BN: Air Alliance Houston believes that everyone has a right to breathe clean air and that where you live should not determine your health.  For more than 25 years, Air Alliance Houston’s staff has worked to improve the quality of Houston’s air.

Through research, education, and advocacy we are committed to improving air quality for a healthier future in the Houston region.  We work with a range of partners to research air quality issues in Houston.  For example, we are working with residents and community organizations in Pasadena to better understand their concerns about air quality, identify pollution “hot spots,” and conduct air monitoring.

Our education program, Ozone Theater, educates thousands of children each year about ozone pollution and its impact on health.  We also work to raise awareness about Houston’s air quality issues through collaborative projects like the One Breath Partnership. Through personal stories, OBP is working to raise awareness about how air quality has affected the lives of Houston residents.

We advocate for clean air policies that support public health in a number of ways.  For example, we will use the information we are collecting in Pasadena to advocate for an anti-idling ordinance to reduce residents’ exposure to diesel pollution.  Diesel pollution contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, can exacerbate respiratory issues, and is classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA.

We also advocate by attending public meetings, submitting public comments on relevant issues, contacting regulatory agencies about air pollution concerns, and participating in litigation when necessary.

LSLA: Last month EPA celebrated Air Quality Awareness Week with a focus on Air Quality Where You Are. What are some of the most important things you’d like the public to be aware of concerning air quality in Southeast Texas and the Gulf Coast?

BN: The Houston area faces unique air quality challenges.  We are ground zero for the energy industry.  We have over 400 existing petrochemical manufacturing facilities and industry is expanding.  These facilities emit millions of pounds of air pollution every year.  These emissions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone and our region has yet to meet the national public health standards that have been established for ground-level ozone.

We also have numerous smaller sources of air pollution.   For example, there are hundreds of metal recycling facilities and concrete batch plants throughout Houston neighborhoods.  Because we have inadequate land use policies many residents live or go to school in very close proximity to facilities that can compromise their health.

Research has shown for quite some time that health risks decrease with distance from sources of air pollution. For example, research has shown that children that live within 2-miles of the Houston Ship Channel have a 50% greater risk of developing childhood leukemia than children that live farther away.  Studies have also shown that people living or going to school within 500 feet of a high-traffic roadway have increased risks of asthma, impaired lung development, and childhood leukemia.  Several years ago, the Houston Chronicle estimated that 80,000 children in our area attend schools in the traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) zone where pollution levels are the highest.  People should not have to live with these unacceptable health risks.  It is incumbent upon us to advocate for policies that can reduce and/or prevent these exposures from occurring in the first place.

Our organization is particularly concerned about environmental justice and health equity.  Given that communities of color and lower-income residents suffer disproportionately from exposure to harmful air pollution and subsequent health impacts, much of AAH’s advocacy work is focused on the region’s most at-risk, overburdened residents who live in high-traffic, densely industrialized areas.

Some of these areas include Pasadena, Galena Park and Houston’s East End. The social justice aspect is what needs to be highlighted – people don’t realize that in addition to cleaner air, that people also need resources available in the language they speak (e.g. Spanish), better access to health insurance, and other healthcare resources.  It is important to recognize that community environments shape opportunities for health.  And, that while health insurance and access to health care are critical for treating illness, opportunities for reducing the likelihood of illness and maintaining good health in the first place often occur outside of healthcare settings in the places where we live, work, learn and play.

Several recent studies have highlighted the fact that African-Americans continue to face higher levels of exposure to various forms of air pollution than other groups.  Because of these inequities, we have to be very intentional in our work about not only raising awareness of these issues but also directing resources to the most vulnerable communities.

LSLA: This year EPA also celebrates the 20th anniversary of AirNow, the air quality index for ozone and particulate matter, which provides current and future forecast updates on local air quality.   How useful is this information to our daily activities? Does it provide air quality information down to the neighborhood level? 

BN: When high ozone is predicted, the EPA and TCEQ issue alerts, which are announced online. The TCEQ issues a daily air quality forecast taken from EPA and AirNow and announces ozone actions days online.  People can sign-up to receive notification via email and text message from TCEQ.  These alerts can help residents determine whether or not it’s safe to spend extended amounts of time outside for daily activities. TCEQ’s Twitter account also posts the daily air quality forecast during the week.

Regarding neighborhood level air quality information, the Air Quality Index (AQI) used by AirNow is a very generalized value to estimate ozone levels throughout the region. In reality, ozone values vary throughout the area. For instance, the 8-hour average ozone highs in the last few weeks have been found in north Houston – near Aldine – where oxidized VOC emissions from the Ship Channel industries have migrated as ozone. So regional air quality is not just a problem among the communities near industry. It really affects the entire region.

I also think people should know that our air monitoring network is not as comprehensive as it could or should be.  While we have an extensive air monitoring network, it is inadequate for the geographic scale of Houston. There are significant gaps in the network.  Furthermore, not all air monitors measure for the same pollutants.  We don’t really have a good understanding of neighborhood air quality information throughout Houston.  We need to increase our local air monitoring capacity.  That is an issue Air Alliance Houston is working on as well.

LSLA: What are some other ways communities throughout Texas can stay updated and aware of air quality issues where they live? 

BN: Air Alliance Houston is one of five organizations behind the Neighborhood Witness tool. It is a great resource that allows users to sign up to receive alerts when a facility has reported that it has had an emissions event (in other words exceeded its air permit) and report polluters in their area.

Air Alliance Houston is also working on a mapping tool called BREATHE (Bringing Research Education and Advocacy Together for Houston’s Environment) that will enable users to identify the sources of air pollution in their neighborhoods, determine whether their neighbors have submitted complaints to regulatory agencies, whether these facilities have a history of emissions events and other information that can be used to get a better sense of what is going in their communities.

We anticipate doing a soft launch of the tool within the next few months to get feedback from the public and then enter another phase of development to work toward making the tool more user-friendly for residents.  We think it is critical to partner with residents on the development of the tool to ensure we are 1) including data that address their needs; 2) summarizing and communicating the information in a user-friendly manner; and, 3) equipping them with information to advocate for change in their neighborhoods.

LSLA: What other ways can people report air pollution if there’s a problem in their neighborhood?  What about folks without internet access?

BN: As previously mentioned, Neighborhood Witness and AirNow are some of the best existing resources for residents to stay in the know so they can make a judgment call when it comes to protecting themselves and their families on “bad air days.”

Texas residents can also report environmental concerns and complaints by phone. For residents within the City of Houston (311); for residents within other municipalities and unincorporated Harris County (713-920-2831); and people can also contact TCEQ by calling 888-777-3186.

They can also contact Air Alliance Houston at 713-528-3779.