Energy & Environment

Houston area to receive $1 million in air monitoring grants

The grants are focused on communities historically overburdened by pollution.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The Houston skyline near Washington Ave. on March 18, 2022. Winds blew in smoke from Eastland wildfires, near Abilene, in through Houston.

Two recipients in the Houston area will receive almost $500,000 each to work on projects relating to air monitoring.

The City of Houston will use the money to monitor four hazardous air pollutants in neighborhoods in Southeast Houston — Meadowbrook, Allendale, Pecan Park and Park Place. This area is home to industrial facilities like Texas Petrochemical and Goodyear.

"Very high concentrations of 1,3 butadiene were found last year at the Milby (Park air monitor) when the wind was from the southeast," said Loren Hopkins, Chief Environmental Science Officer at the Houston Health Department. "The increases were not reflected in industry emission event reporting so the work is meant to uncover where the source is."

1,3 butadiene is a colorless gas often used to produce synthetic rubber products and is linked to higher rates of leukemia. Hopkins said the department will monitor other cancer-causing pollutants, such as benzene, formaldehyde and ethylene oxide, in these neighborhoods too.

City officials plan to work with community groups like Air Alliance Houston, Environmental Integrity Project, the Environmental Defense Fund, Houston Wilderness and Houston Botanic Garden to monitor the area and figure out next steps.

The other recipient is a non-profit called Achieving Community Tasks Successfully. This project will focus on mobile air monitoring and expanding capacity on the local level. The group plans to conduct surveys, including one centered on emergency response, and citizen science training sessions.

Funding for these projects come from two major pieces of legislation Congress has passed in recent years: the American Rescue Plan and the Inflation Reduction Act.

These grants come during growing concerns about how climate change and air pollution are impacting lung health.

The International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer estimates 14 percent of lung cancer worldwide is not caused by smoking or second hand smoke, but rather air pollution.

"There’s no question that lung cancer is not exclusively a disease of smokers," said Dr. Eric Bernicker, a thoracic oncologist at Houston Methodist.

He said climate change can impact health in a range of ways — contaminated air from forest fires or the continued reliance on fossil fuels that emit car exhaust and industrial pollution.

Air monitoring is an important tool that should inform healthcare decision-making, Bernicker said. For example, physicians who recommend lung cancer screenings for smokers could extend the same best practices to other high-risk individuals, such as residents living in areas where monitoring shows severe air pollution.

"I do think people need to be aware of what influences air quality in their neighborhood because it's a huge driver of health," Bernicker said. "Air quality is something that’s going to have to continue to be an ongoing issue for health care in every state, but certainly (in Texas) given the petrochemical plants and that part of the economy."