When Debra Walker set up an air monitor in the front yard of her Sunnyside home a few months ago, she first got weird looks from her neighbors.
“People thought they were cameras – you know, like Big Brother was looking at us,” she said. “I said no, it’s for a healthy community.”
Mounted on a wooden pole, the small device runs on solar energy and draws air in from two buttons at the bottom. The Walker’s Yard Monitor is one of five new air monitors installed in the predominantly black community – a project led by the Sunnyside Community Redevelopment Organization, of which Walker is the president.
“We don’t know what we are breathing,” Walker said. “People don’t understand why they are sick.”
Sunnyside has higher asthma rates than the city average, according to data analyzed by the Houston Health Department, and the community faces pollution from various sources: concrete plants, heavy-duty vehicles, metal recyclers and a nearby rock quarry.
New monitors can measure air for pm 2.5 – tiny particles that can get into the lungs and the bloodstream – and nitrogen dioxide, an air pollutant that can cause long-term problems like asthma. The data is then displayed on a website that anyone can access.
“We hope to use the data to find out what we inhale in our community,” Walker said.
She also hopes the data can be used to contact local and state authorities for further assistance or to request a polluter investigation if certain readings are of concern.
Sunnyside residents aren’t the only ones who want their own local air quality data. They join many communities across Houston that have installed their own air monitors, including Pleasantville, eastern Fort Bend County, Galena Park, and Pasadena.
For years, these communities – many of which are low-income communities of color – have suffered from toxic air pollution. In the past, residents say they have been frustrated with the lack of accessible local air quality data and the slow response from authorities when incidents occur.
Now, armed with a growing network of community air traffic controllers across the region, they hope to fill gaps in the current surveillance system and gain access to their own hyperlocal data to make better decisions for their health and tackle the problems. polluters.
“Often in the past, environmental justice communities did not have the data to reflect their lived experience,” said Grace Tee Lewis of the Environmental Defense Fund, which provided grants to the Sunnyside group for their monitoring project. the air.
She said advancements in technology have made low-cost air monitors more accessible.
Still, there are limits, according to Tee Lewis. Taking enforcement action against an installation, for example, requires data from an official regulatory grade air monitor. But she said data from community air monitors can help start a conversation with government officials.
“We hope this is a way for communities to be able to use scientific data and methodologies to show what the true image of their community is, so that local officials can then have more information to use in carrying out reviews. investigations and hopefully improve enforcement and compliance, ”she said.
It comes as Harris County has also invested in expanding its air monitoring and law enforcement programs, following the 2019 ITC chemical fire in Deer Park.
In addition to holding polluters accountable, there are also day-to-day health benefits of having readily available air quality data. Residents can view the data on online maps that are color coordinated to indicate air quality.
“People can go there in real time and watch to see ‘today the air is good. Let me go out, go run. I will let my kids come out and play,” said Juan Flores, director of Air Alliance Houston. community air monitoring program.
The association has also helped communities install air monitors in the Houston area, from Pasadena to Gulfton.
One recent afternoon, Flores met with an owner in the town of Jacinto to install a small air monitor in his home.
“It’s not big at all – as big as a mug, that’s what I always tell people,” Flores said as she unwrapped the white device.
The house is a few kilometers from a group of petrochemical plants, their chimneys visible in the distance on the driveway.
“Quite often here in the neighborhood, you can actually smell the chemicals,” said Jose Ramon, the owner. “We don’t know exactly what it is, but you can smell it.”
Flores, of Air Alliance Houston, has lived most of her life near Galena Park and said it’s not uncommon to encounter the pungent smells of a chemical leak. But often the response from environmental agencies is slow, which he hopes air monitors can help.
“We have to do what we can as a community to take care of ourselves,” said Flores. “And who else has a more vested interest than the rest of us who live here in knowing what’s going on with our air?” “