Fighting for Environmental Justice Through Community-Based Research

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By: Asheton Gilbertson

As Colorado’s population grows and our climate changes, our air quality is suffering. Increased traffic and construction along with more frequent wildfires are making it harder for Coloradans to breathe.  

Some of this pollution is made up of particles large enough to see—like those in tailpipe exhaust and wildfire smoke—while much of it is made up of particles so small as to be invisible, which makes a big difference in its effects. Generally, smaller particles pose the greatest problems for our health. Their small size allows them to enter our lungs where they can do significant damage to our respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

That’s why air pollution containing these tiny particles—referred to as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution—is a big concern for air quality and public health, particularly in cities where car engines, industrial processes, and coal- or natural gas-fired power plants are all major PM2.5 sources. Such is the case in Denver, which earned a near-failing grade for its high levels of short-term particle pollution.

While informative on the macroscale—Denver’s air—this grade tells us little about the microscale—the air that we breathe in our neighborhoods and communities. Without this local framework, we lack a comprehensive understanding of the variability in our air quality and its environmental justice implications.

Our Protégete team is working to change that. Driven by a commitment to support communities on the frontlines of pollution in their fight for a healthy environment, Protégete joined students and faculty at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) to investigate microscale particulate pollution in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea—two communities with a long history of environmental injustice.

What they found shows us just how important it is that we continue to empower frontline communities to speak out and stand up for more just environmental protections.

Communities Dealing with Decades of Environmental Pollution

Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are some of Denver’s oldest—and most polluted—neighborhoods. With several nearby industrial factories, two busy interstate highways, diesel train traffic, and soil contamination from historical smelting operations, the communities of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea bear the nation’s highest environmental risk.

But it is no coincidence that these communities, predominantly Latinx and lower-income, bear this disproportionate risk. When compared to the overall population of Denver—32 percent Latinx with an average household income of  $73,100—it’s evident how Globeville—68 percent Latinx with an average household income of $39,200—and Elyria-Swansea—84 percent Latinx with an average household income of $44,700—are communities facing environmental injustice and have so for many decades.

Since the construction of Interstates 25 and 70 in the 1960s, community residents have had to deal with poor air quality from vehicle traffic in addition to emissions from the railroad yards and heavy industries from which Globeville and Elyria-Swansea were initially established in the 1880s.

While longtime residents, who for generations have called these neighborhoods home, are well aware of the local confluence of pollution, it’s often less apparent to residents just moving in. And during a time when Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are undergoing rapid growth and transformation—including several multi-million dollar infrastructure and redevelopment projects—more new residents means a loss in community knowledge and capacity building. As a consequence, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents—current and new—continue to be exposed to untold health risks.

These are the reasons Protégete Community Organizer, Issamar Pichardo partnered with Dr. Ivan Ramirez, instructor in the Geography and Environmental Sciences (GES) department at the University of Colorado Denver, and six master’s students to conduct a community-based research pilot study addressing air quality in these neighborhoods. The study builds on city and state efforts to better quantify near-highway pollution in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea by supplementing macroscale air quality data with microscale, community-sourced data and visuals of intersecting demographic, socioeconomic, and environmental health factors.

“CU Denver h[as] expertise in geospatial information while Protégete is at the local level working with [these] communities,” said Dr. Ramirez. “We need that connection if we’re going to work together to help improve the well-being of Coloradans.”

And Pichardo agrees. As an organizer who works to build community power by cultivating relationships, Protégete’s partnership with UCD was a unique opportunity for scientists and local activists to share their expertise and grow new skills to bring about positive change.

“The Globeville and Elyria-Swansea communities are extremely vulnerable to adverse environmental health impacts,” said Pichardo. “Learning how to collect environmental data, understand it, and communicate about it empowers community members to be advocates. Partnering with UCD to conduct community-based research is building Protégete’s capacity to do more of this critical work.”

Establishing an Air Quality Baseline

Growing evidence shows that living near busy roadways can have a big effect on how much pollution you breathe. But just how much of a difference it makes in your specific neighborhood depends on a number of factors such as distance from traffic, freeway design, the time of day and the types of cars, trucks, and buildings around you.

In the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods, residents live in close proximity to more than 350,000 vehicles emitting exhaust as they travel along Interstates 25 and 70 each day. But highway emissions aren’t the only concern for these communities. Industrial businesses that are located within the neighborhoods are another source of particulate pollution along with heavy freight trucks that traverse through residential streets to serve these businesses.

And as if these air quality impacts weren’t enough, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are among Denver’s neighborhoods with the lowest amount of tree cover. This further exacerbates existing air quality impacts by minimizing the benefits of pollution absorption and oxygen production that tree canopies provide.

Yet the question remains, just how much particulate pollution are Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents exposed to?

Using low-cost, handheld air monitors, PM2.5  measurements were taken at Garden Place Academy and Swansea Elementary—two schools situated near the I-25/I-70 interchange—to help answer this question.

Four hours of air monitoring—conducted for one hour in the morning (around 7 am) and one hour in the evening (around 5 pm) on two separate days—indicated that overall air quality near the two elementary schools was moderately healthy based on the Air Quality Index (AQI) the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses to regulate PM2.5 pollution. Whereas good air quality poses little or no health risk, moderate conditions pose some health risks to sensitive groups including children, older adults, and people with respiratory or cardiovascular issues, while unhealthy conditions pose serious health concerns for these populations and the general public.

Such conditions were observed at certain times during the collection period, with maximum PM2.5 pollution reaching levels unhealthy for sensitive populations, impacting the daily lives and futures of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents.

“Environmental concerns are health concerns,” said graduate student Gabriela Gonzales Sanchez. “How are we going to protect our communities without protecting the environment?”

As the microscale data shows, when it comes to air pollution and protecting Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents, current and future mitigations are not only necessary but critical to improving air quality and fighting environmental injustice.

UCD students David Smith and Gabriela Gonzales Sanchez monitor air quality.

Fighting Environmental Injustice

Unhealthy levels of particulate pollution put our communities at risk for higher rates of premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks, heart disease, and lung cancer. Those who are younger, older or dealing with pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to these effects.

In Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, which are largely comprised of families with young children who suffer from some of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease and asthma in Denver, residents are especially susceptible to the negative health impacts of particulate pollution. In fact, one report found that emergency room rates for youth asthma-related events in the neighborhoods of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea were 120 to 140 percent higher when compared to Denver as a whole.

These health disparities, together with the air quality measurements from Protégete and UCD’s pilot study, make it hard to deny that differences in microscale air pollution in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea exist and that they’re taking a toll on residents’ quality of life.

Fighting this injustice isn’t easy, but it is possible.

One tactic graduate student Morgan Cameron identified is to continue to support frontline communities with the resources they need to lead the fight. “It’s important to not only assist community members in remedying any issues but to giv[e] them the means and the power to have a voice to address [the issues] themselves,” she said.

Community-based research “empowers community members to defend themselves,” added graduate student David Smith.

“This pilot study is just the beginning,” said Pichardo. “It shows us how much we need to start thinking about ways to improve our air. Vehicle emissions are the primary source of air pollution in these communities. We need to be asking how we can electrify our transportation sector. It’s time to take action for a cleaner future. My community, [the Latinx community] has been facing environmental injustice for far too long.”

Heavy industrial presence in Elyria-Swansea.

Protégete and UCD research group (left to right): Issamar Pichardo, David Smith, Gabriela Gonzales Sanchez, Betsy Stratton, Nicole Maier, Morgan Cameron, Dr. Ramirez, and Robert Nass.

Ultimately, it won’t be a single solution, but many collective actions in the form of community-based research, advocacy, and policy creation that will help us address the disproportionate burden of air pollution.

Protégete and UCD’s partnership provides a powerful example of the many forms collective action can take and the change-making potential we have when we come together. “If we can work together, we can come up with solutions together,” concluded Dr. Ramirez.