Houston and Harris County, TX
Addressed inequities in air quality and their resulting health effects through neighborhood-level air monitoring and advocacy.
In several Houston-area neighborhoods, residents experience exceptionally poor air quality because of their proximity to large oil and gas polluters, backyard polluters, major highways, and all the above. These residents, many of whom are people of color, have lower average life expectancies and face higher risks of poor health outcomes compared with residents in other area neighborhoods. These disproportionate impacts are a product of historical redlining and other ongoing discriminatory policies that have relegated people of color to neighborhoods close to major polluters and allowed these facilities to operate and expand. To combat this, Air Alliance Houston (AAH) used its community air monitoring network in five neighborhoods with community conditions shaped by structural racism—Galena Park/Jacinto City, Gulfton, Kashmere Gardens, Near Northside/Northline, and Pasadena—to explore air quality trends and identify residents’ preferred policy and practice changes.
AAH held community conversations to gather information about perceptions of air quality issues and to determine where to locate monitors. AAH collected air quality data from more than 30 monitors in its network, all of which are hosted by residents or community groups. Some monitor hosts also served as air quality ambassadors, or compensated spokespeople, for the project. AAH displayed the air quality data in real time on a consolidated online dashboard, which residents were trained to read and interpret. The monitoring documented that the average monthly nitrogen oxide concentrations at certain sites in Galena Park/Jacinto City were three times the EPA annual maximum standard and far above levels observed in other communities. Volatile organic compounds were highest in Pasadena; levels of ozone were highest in Gulfton, Galena Park/Jacinto City, and Near Northside/Northline.
Based on these findings, AAH convened action planning sessions in each focus neighborhood. Attendees identified pollution sources and solutions and raised additional data questions at these sessions, which were integral for developing community action plans that AAH and residents review and update monthly. The residents who live and spend time in these five targeted neighborhoods benefited from the opportunity to collect and understand neighborhood-level information on air quality. Residents in different neighborhoods are taking different actions based on what the monitoring data have revealed. Short-term plans include expanding monitoring for acute events; advocating for reduction of pollution sources in local elementary schools; advocating against a local metal recycler and chemical recycling; and advancing nature-based solutions to heat and air pollution, such as mass planting of trees.
In summer 2023, AAH added three neighborhoods to the program, and it will continue to support the neighborhood coalitions. The organization hopes to influence the locations of the state monitors and to convince government agencies to consider community-collected air quality data in regulatory decisionmaking for a more comprehensive view of local environmental conditions.