Houston neighborhood maps decades-old pollution problem, paving way for communities nationwide

Matt Tresaugue

 Bridgette Murray, a retired nurse, lives in a predominantly black neighborhood on Houston’s east side, where small houses grace tree-shaded streets, all built around two schools and a city park.

Its name is Pleasantville, a postwar version of the American dream. But the reality is something different.

Warehouses, metal recyclers, salvage yards, Anheuser-Busch’s Houston brewery and an interstate push hard against the neighborhood, proof and product of the city’s light-on-regulations approach to land use. Trains and trucks rumble through the area day and night. It can be difficult to breathe.

“Playing victim has never been one of my personality traits,” said Murray, whose family moved to Pleasantville in 1957, years before industry’s arrival. “I am here to work with the residents for solutions.”

As founder of the nonprofit Achieving Community Tasks Successfully, or ACTS, Murray is working with Environmental Defense Fund to fully understand Pleasantville’s air pollution and its associated harmful health effects. She wants to map a fair, just and sustainable path forward for her community.

The effort began in December 2017 with the placement of a BEACO2N sensor in Pleasantville to measure concentrations of several pollutants, including fine particulate matter, which can get deep inside lungs and cause cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Sensors detect pollution hotspots

In all, EDF, Houston’s health department and the University of California, Berkeley, placed 20 sensors across the city. The list includes Pleasantville, where about 3,000 people live – mostly of low wealth – because the state’s existing network of stationary monitors does not include the neighborhood despite its proximity to a busy port, industry and heavy traffic.

That matters because we know that air pollution can vary by as much as eight times within one city block.

Our goal is to … improve the health and prosperity of those who have suffered the burdens of air pollution for way too long.

In Pleasantville, preliminary data shows the highest concentrations of particulate matter occur at 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., high times for traffic. The later peak typically extends through midnight, suggesting industrial sources also may play a role.

“Our goal is to reduce the health risks from exposure to air pollution, eliminate the health disparities and improve the health and prosperity of those who have suffered the burdens of air pollution for way too long,” said Elena Craft, EDF’s senior director for climate and health.

Projects change the playing field 

EDF is doing similar work in other states – and now London – but Houston represents our most extensive effort to use innovative technologies to measure air pollution and produce hyperlocal data that can empower vulnerable communities to take action.

With 14 projects underway, this work comes at a crucial time for Houston, where air pollution remains a public health problem despite hard-won improvements over the past 20 years. In 2018 alone, there have been 30 days with unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, or smog. On many days, the city’s air also contains other harmful pollutants such as benzene, a gasoline byproduct.

Our projects include:

  • Testing a cost-effective, scalable model for mapping air pollution using municipal vehicles in partnership with telematics company GeoTab, TDE Technologies and the city of Houston.
  • Identifying hotspots for air pollution using Google Street View cars outfitted with high-resolution sensors. It builds on previous work done in Oakland, California, in a larger geographic area.
  • Deploying Entanglement Technologies’ mobile sensors and laboratory-grade analyzer to measure air pollution like benzene in real time in Houston neighborhoods following Hurricane Harvey.

“If somebody asked me how many fixed site monitors we need, I would say there are never enough,” said Loren Raun, chief environmental officer with the Houston Health Department, which has since received funding to purchase similar instruments from Entanglement Technologies. “Real-time mobile monitoring will change the playing field.” 

Community champions drive change

These new tools can make the city’s air pollution not only visible, but also actionable. With the Houston Endowment’s support, EDF will provide high-resolution maps of environmental threats and health effects, along with hyperlocal pollution data and legal options for communities interested in developing their own action plans.

Participation requires an existing community-based organization like Murray’s ACTS, because data cannot drive change without champions.

Murray’s community work initially focused on replacing aging infrastructure, rebuilding roads and improving storm drainage in Pleasantville. She later integrated environmental justice and public health as major parts of her platform.

Decades of injustice, finally in focus

Murray said her concern grew not from one event, but many. Her father died at age 51. He had multiple myeloma, a form of cancer. As industry’s footprint grew around the neighborhood, the air began to stink. In 1995, stored chemicals burned out of control at four nearby warehouses for a day and then reignited three times over the next month.

A recent Environmental Protection Agency analysis shows that people of color face higher exposure to particulate pollution than the population at large, regardless of wealth. These tiny particles have been associated with lung disease, heart disease and premature death. Health and exposure data, however, has been hard to find for Pleasantville, Murray said.

“We know our cancer rates are high, but it’s hard to prove our points when the system does not collect the data,” she said.

More and better information can empower the community, Murray said.  

“In black and brown communities, sometimes we know about something, but we are talking only to each other. We need to take the conversation from the front porch to a place of action.”

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