The Houston Health Department has received $500,000 in grant money from the EPA for air monitoring in communities in East Houston. The funds will go toward providing more targeted air monitoring for communities particularly affected by air pollution.
In March, The Guardian ranked Houston as the sixth-worst U.S. city for air pollution, largely due to its proximity to oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Several predominantly Black and Latino residential neighborhoods located near these sites have been linked with higher rates of health issues like asthma, diabetes and heart disease. In 2019, the Texas State Department of Health Services designated a portion of Houston's Fifth Ward as a cancer cluster – it had disproportionately high rates of certain cancers between 2000 and 2016.
"These tax dollars are coming to places where they are much needed," said Rep. Al Green at a press conference Monday. "We can't conclude that because there's more sickness in one area of town, we should just move to another area of town. Whatever impacts one directly, impacts all indirectly."
Dr. Loren Hopkins, the chief environmental science officer at the Houston Health Department, said disproportionate air pollution in certain communities can not only create greater health risks but also worsen inequity.
“We think about, if this is a community affected by environmental justice and they really have had impacts from pollution, there’s a chain effect,” said Hopkins. "If you have air pollution, you may have more asthma attacks and can't sit in your desk at school. When you have an environmental justice problem in your community, we believe it may be one of the causes for an increased crime rate, for kids not being able to make it to school, for people having to stay home to take care of their family when they're sick."
Nine stationary air monitors — and a mobile unit attached to an electric vehicle — will be installed in communities including Meadowbrook, Allendale, Pecan Park and Park Place. They will detect levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air, including benzene, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene.
The current air monitoring system in the U.S. uses regional monitors to collect data and generate averages for a wide swath of communities.
Dr. Earthea Nance, regional administrator for the EPA, said the system does not currently measure levels of chemicals in particular hotspots, and more air monitors in those areas can provide more precise data and a more comprehensive picture of how particular communities are impacted.
“This project, in one of the most important areas in the country, will give us an idea of what people are breathing inside their community,” said Nance.
Organizers hope the effort will lead to lasting solutions, and Nance said the EPA can take the new data into consideration when reviewing facilities' permits in the future.
Data collection will begin in January, and the project will run for three years.