Growing up in South Phoenix, I was constantly, unknowingly exposed to the devastating effects air pollution has on environmental and human health.
As a child it was common for my family and friends to have asthma, including myself. So common, in fact, that I didn’t think to question why that was, until I was much older and got involved in social justice efforts when I learned about the environmental injustices that communities like mine face. Now I know what the problem is: South Phoenix has a history of redlining and racist city planning, which zoned it for heavy industrial use that contaminated the communities of color who were segregated there. This has also occurred nationally: communities of color and low-income communities are more likely to be located near industrial and oil and gas facilities that spew air pollutants such as methane – a precursor to ozone–and soot, causing those high rates of asthma.
Phoenix, Arizona’s population is one-third Latino, and South Phoenix, where I grew up and my family still resides, is primarily low-income, Latino and Black families. It is also a community that was built under three major highway interpasses and is surrounded by factories and industrial buildings. The air pollution created by the heavy industrial presence in the area results in devastating health impacts and unbearable poor air quality days–Phoenix has an “F” rating for ozone and air quality. Air pollution from fossil fuel emissions and industrial sources increases asthma risk and severity — and Latino children are twice as likely to die from asthma as white children.
To make matters worse, rising global temperatures and climate change are evident in South Phoenix. Our summers consistently reach record high temperatures year after year. Not only is it dangerously hot, but our communities’ health is also threatened by drought and uncontrollable wildfires, both of which bring about their own health complications. This is another area where communities of color are disproportionately harmed: for example, Latinos are twice as likely as other demographics to be affected by wildfires, three times more likely to die from heat on the job, and are more likely to live in hotter neighborhoods. All of this has forced our community indoors. We’re becoming so desensitized to the extreme weather, air pollution, and changing climate that we don’t fight it, and just stay inside instead.
Working in advocacy, focusing on voters’ rights and education, I was inspired to help my community learn to advocate for themselves. Whether it’s immigration issues or climate-related issues, it became evident to me that there was a huge informational gap between communities (primarily Black and brown) and the issues directly impacting their health and livelihood. So, I moved to help fill that gap in the energy space by using one of the most powerful tools available to us–education. The same way I lived in acceptance of prevalent asthma rates in my community as a child, many others live in acceptance of their situation because of a lack of information.
Today, I’m in the privileged position of being able to share knowledge about renewable energy, climate change and its health impacts, and about environmental justice. Through my work in solar and renewable energy and my participation in groups like Hispanic Access’ Latino Climate Council, I have the opportunity to elevate the voices of my family and community members in spaces and conversations from which we’ve been historically excluded and will continue to do so to ensure our voices are heard. Now, it’s up to decision makers to hear us and address our concerns–it’s time for action and it’s beyond time for strict limits on the methane, soot, and other pollutant emissions that have devastating effects on human health.