ABOVE: Air Alliance Houston Executive Director Jennifer M. Hadayia provides key information at briefing on environmental injustice
Research shows air pollution negatively impacts people of color in certain Houston areas
Did you know the chances of you being negatively impacted by air pollution are drastically greater depending on where you live in the Greater Houston area?
More importantly, did you know that people in the Greater Houston area are expected to live significantly longer, by as much as 23 years, depending on the neighborhood you reside in?
Your zip code determines where air pollution is most prevalent and least prevalent, and it is important for every resident in the Greater Houston area to know that.
According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s most recent State of Global Air report, it is estimated through decades of data and modeling, that approximately 40 percent of all chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, or respiratory illnesses, can be traced right back to air pollution across the globe.
Listen to this!
The City of Houston currently has more than 400 chemical and manufacturing facilities, over 180 concrete batch plants, and over 140 metal recycling facilities that have been a major source of residents being exposed to harmful air pollutants.
In most major cities like Houston, harmful air pollutants become a serious issue, primarily because of the lack of zoning and the absence of sufficient land-use policies that fail to protect the areas where many people live, work, shop, and play.
Major chemical incidents are far too common in the Greater Houston area, and as a result, the health, safety, and well-being of people are constantly put at risk.
It is no secret that communities of color, specifically African Americans, Latinos, and people who are considered low-income, find themselves the most vulnerable to air pollution, in that most of the hazardous facilities and sources of air pollution are disproportionately located in their neighborhoods.
Air Alliance Houston is a nonprofit advocacy organization that was founded in the late 1980s, with a mission to reduce the public health impacts from air pollution and advance environmental justice through research, education, and advocacy. As part of their work, they have collected hyperlocal air pollution data to help residents and public policymakers better identify, remediate, and prevent pollution sources and their associated health risks in communities.
Since 2020, Air Alliance Houston has partnered with various communities in the Greater Houston, such as Sunnyside, Fifth Ward, OST-South Union, and the East End, riding through their neighborhoods with personal Flow 2 air quality monitors to bring attention to local air quality and pollution sources. The data collected during these rides has been extremely helpful when it comes to exposing the destructive and disparate impact of air pollution in those areas and challenging elected officials to use this research to address this environmental injustice.
Air Alliance Houston recently hosted a Houston Ethnic Media Toxic Air Tour to share key findings and provide a glimpse into the current realities of residents living in some of the most impacted areas across the Greater Houston area.
“Research shows definitively that breathing in air toxins long term affects the reproductive system, the cardiovascular system,” said Jennifer M. Hadayia, Executive Director of Air Alliance Houston. “A growing body of research shows that exposure to air pollution, short-term and long-term, also affects diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, and it has some correlations to the issues of crime and that exposure can influence behavior.”
Hadavia states that air pollution contributes to every major health and social issue.
When asked by the Forward Times whether the lack of zoning has anything to do with the disproportionate air pollution numbers across communities of color and select areas in the Greater Houston area, Hadavia passionately responded that the lack of zoning plays a major part.
“Zoning does contribute to this,” Hadavia stated. “There are rock crushing facilities a block away from a hospital in Kashmere Gardens. Why would you put a rock crushing facility across from a hospital? Well, it’s because there is no zoning that keeps them away from each other.”
Hadavia went on to say that a lack of zoning and historical policies, such as redlining, contributed to most of the air pollution issues in the Greater Houston area.
“Redlined communities, where land was undervalued and people were cut off from each other through freeway expansions, were impacted, and those communities are Black, brown, and lower income,” said Hadavia. “Industry then came in, bought up cheap land, built the refineries, and continued to build the sources of pollution across from hospitals and areas that we see today.”
Hadavia states that one of the primary advocacy messages that Air Alliance Houston wants to emphasize is that these types of actions must stop.
“It is a Title XI civil rights violation to be putting pollution sources in Black and brown communities,” said Hadavia. “This is a civil rights issue, and we are working with other groups who are also fighting and committed to this being addressed.”
One of the most eye-opening revelations shared by Hadavia was something that environmental justice advocates call the “Houston Arrow” which is a visual reminder that when you map any vulnerability measure (poverty, education status, employment history, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, etc.) the same interesting and shocking pattern is visible.
In essence, depending on how you choose to look at the “Houston Arrow” on the map, you can see that it is either pointing you to the areas of harmful air pollution or it is showing you where there isn’t any harm. On the map, the census tracks that are Black, brown, and low-income are the areas that the “Houston Arrow” is pointing to with environmental harms.
Areas like River Oaks, Memorial, and higher socioeconomic levels face no environmental harm. Areas like Kashmere Gardens, Sunnyside, Fifth Ward, and lower socio-economic levels are severely affected by these environmental hazards and sources of air pollution.
In a nutshell, every person who is impacted or not affected, should be concerned about this important issue. It is imperative that residents in the Greater Houston area are educated, equipped, and empowered with the right information, data, and tools that will help mobilize advocates, influence public policies, improve air quality, and ensure everyone is free from environmental harm.