by Jasmine Pulido, summer 2021
Although research is on the rise, there are still many gaps regarding air quality and the environmental inequalities that underrepresented communities face. For some, information on air quality is highly accessible, with the privilege of learning and forgetting. Smaller communities that are constantly fighting against social inequities must also face environmental disparities every day. We see gaps in awareness and attempt to bridge together research and the community’s voices to address them through education, collaboration, and action.
To accomplish such a goal, we must recognize that rising pollution emissions are a human fault. Unstoppable urban development, over-use of natural resources, and increased agricultural activities have a heavy toll on our environment, particularly air quality, due to the inefficiency of those human processes (Mabahwi et al, 2014). As populations continue to thrive, so do urbanization and industrialization to meet our needs (Hystad and Yusuf et al, 2020; Zhu et al, 2019; Analitis and De’Donato et al, 2018). Due to higher levels of anthropogenic activities, air pollution has become a much more prevalent issue that affects us all and with no easy solution.
Air pollution is a complex mixture of gasses and small particles suspended in the air (South Coast Air Quality Management District, n.d). There are three predominant air pollutants: ozone, noxious gases, and particulate matter (PM). Ozone forms when pollutants from sources like cars or power plants chemically react with sunlight. Noxious gasses are composed of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) generated by vehicles or industrial emissions. Particulate matter is a mixture of many pollutants from various sources such as combustion from cars and trucks or a natural source like a wildfire and dust storms (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2021; South Coast Air Quality Management District, n.d; Langford and Alvarez et al, 2020; Analitis and De’Donato et al, 2018), usually about 2.5 microns in size. Earth is like a fishbowl; it cycles matter, but it can’t clean itself of pollutants altogether because the pollution is released faster than absorbed, contributing to worsening air quality around the globe and climate change (Mabahwi et al, 2014; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2021; Chen and Zhang et al, 2013).
Extreme weather and natural disaster damage are both direct effects of climate change, affecting farming and the agricultural sector in places such as Sacramento, Salinas Valley, and San Joaquin Valley (Giannadaki and Despina et al, 2018). Growing populations mean higher agricultural needs (Arora, 2019; Almaraz and Bai et al, 2018), which is another high contributor to climate change and air pollution conglomerations. This broadened carbon footprint causes other significant problems such as nutrient-deficient soil, barren lands, and land degradation. According to the Global Assessment of Land Degradation (GLADA), studies have shown that ¼ of land area around the globe is unusable – meaning that there are 15 billion tons of fertile soil lost every year. To amplify production farmers turn to soil-enhancing products such as pesticides, nitrates, and fertilizers (Arora, 2019; Veloz and Gonzalez, 2020; Singh, 2021). Pesticides, nitrates, fertilizers, soot, and dust, are all more harmful pollutants released into the atmosphere from agricultural activities, making rural communities some of the most vulnerable to poor air quality (Singh, 2021; Hanak and Escriva-Bou et al, 2019). By way of illustration, nitrogen gasses in most fertilizers make up 79% of total emissions and are responsible for ⅛ of air pollution-related deaths (Almaraz and Bai et al, 2018). The continuous release of emissions and pollutants contributes to the rising levels of health-related effects on the population that lives in the area.
Places such as the San Joaquin Valley, which has the most polluted air in the U.S. non-complying with the federal pollution regulations, face direct ramifications on human health (Veloz and Gonzalez, 2020; Zhu et al, 2019). It can be arduous to detect the levels of exposure effects, but research has shown that high exposure to air pollution can cause health issues throughout the entire body, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases such as bronchitis, emphysema, asthma, tissue damage, blood clotting, and PM2.5 piercings in the lungs (Mabahwi et al, 2014; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 2021; Brunekreef and Holgate, 2002; Chen and Zhang et al, 2013; Naddafi et al, 2019). These symptoms go hand in hand since inhaled ozone creates stress signals in the inflammatory cells, leading to tissue damage caused by the activation of cell nuclei binding and triggers the excessive making of cytokines – making the blood clot and even causes lives to shorten by one to two years (Brunekreef and Holgate, 2002). Additionally, building thermodynamics mixed with ultra-dry air creates tears in the film that protects eyes and produces irritability in the upper airways of the respiratory system through the mucus membrane (Zhang and Chen et al, 2018; Wolkoff, 2018). Air pollution also infiltrates indoor spaces. Inordinate amounts of pollutants in indoor spaces affect the cognitive performance of individuals, like brain damage and impediment in verbal test scores, which are both prevalent in rural communities and other communities plagued by poor air quality (Wolkoff, 2018). These are only a few of the general side-effects of air pollution; knowing that these are all different elements to consider, we see how imperative it is to share this information with communities and the general public.
Lifting rural community voices requires understanding the socio-demographic obstacles that also contribute to the environmental gap in equity. The more urbanized areas, usually more high-income, are more likely to have studies and data collected. On the other hand, rural areas with smaller populations or are low-income face a substantial disparity in knowledge in air pollution studies – most scientists assume that the data from the urbanized areas also apply here, which can lead to skewed results and conclusions. Publication biases and non-diverse teams of scientists make it difficult for the public to discern where to stand and how to improve air quality (Hystad and Yusuf et al, 2020). Another concern is the staggering amount of papers concluding that there needs to be cooperation between legislators, scientists, and community members, a call to action, but without bringing up any community-level solutions. Naming problems and no resolutions create a vicious cycle. As a non-profit, we provide education to understand the complications and the tools to help develop those community-level solutions alongside the residents. By implementing the theoretical concepts into the lives of residents and giving their concerns the recognition they deserve, more issues become resolved, and the closer we come to improving air quality for all.
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Disclaimer: this essay was written solely by Jasmine Pulido during her internship at 4 Venir during the summer of 2021 (4 Venir’s team has not edited it). Jasmine was 16 years old when she wrote this post.