How your ZIP code determines your lung health
Written by Ayushi Agarwal JP Keenan and Janet Weinstein on December 3, 2021
(NEW YORK) — This is the fourth and final episode of ABC News Digital’s four-part series “Green New Future,” which highlights innovators and environmental solutions.
While climate change and poor air quality are global issues concerning all people, 29-year-old Darren Riley has found that the ZIP code people are born into can disproportionately put them in harm’s way.
Riley’s father ended up in a coma in the ICU due to asthma-related illnesses in 2014, Riley told ABC News. It was his father’s words from seven years before that made him realize the connection between a person and where they live.
“I was a product of my environment,” Riley’s father had told him.
Riley, who also developed asthma himself, said he set out to find a way to alleviate systemic issues and allow people from all areas an equal opportunity in quality of life. He is now the CEO and co-founder of JustAir Solutions, a company that creates air quality monitoring networks to provide cities and individuals data on their breathing environment.
“I think air quality is a sliver of all of many injustices that we see in the world that we can really focus on,” Riley told ABC News.
The disproportionate impact of pollution is one example of a host of systemic issues that people of color, lower wealth communities and indigenous populations are facing, advocates say.
These issues are “fueled by environmental racism,” Mustafa Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, told ABC News.
Through discriminatory practices such as redlining, cities in the U.S. have been divided and designed with toxic industries disproportionately running through areas inhabited by communities of color, according to Ali.
This affects the quality of the air people breathe, which research has found can determine the long-term health of their lungs and subsequently, their life expectancy.
“We have 100,000 people who die prematurely from air pollution in our country,” Ali said.
This issue came to the forefront over 50 years ago when Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which set out to control and reduce air pollution across the nation by keeping track of the quality of air that citizens were inhaling.
The U.S Environmental Protection Agency mandates that cities track their air quality levels using a monitor that tracks dust, metals and other matter that could affect the lungs.
The EPA regulations state there must be a minimum of one monitor per city, but community advocates argue there must be more. Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Riley piloted his project, has just one monitor that reports on the city’s air quality level.
Data from that monitor is used to approximate the air quality level for the entire city and its suburbs, Jim Meeks, the chairman of JustAir, told ABC News.
But Riley was curious about the difference in air quality levels across neighborhoods, which the lone monitor set up by the EPA could not capture. He deployed 11 sensors across Grands Rapids — five in the downtown area, five in the Roosevelt Park neighborhood and one adjacent to the EPA monitor.
When comparing data from his sensors in the metro downtown area of Grand Rapids versus Roosevelt Park, the neighborhood with the highest non-white population, Riley found stark differences in the air quality levels.
The Roosevelt Park sensors recorded far more unhealthy days than the one near the EPA monitor, Riley said.
“There are disparities between sensors within a city,” Riley told ABC News. “And one sensor doesn’t detect that.”
JustAir’s sensors are currently only used in Grand Rapids, but Riley hopes to expand his company to other cities such as Detroit and Chicago, believing that the data could inform governments and individuals to take action.
He said he hopes his company will bring change to the nation’s struggle with poor air quality and its health impacts.
The key to fighting air pollution-related health disparities lies in the re-prioritization of resources and budgets and breaking through the existing political polarization, according to Ronda Chapman, equity director at The Trust for Public Land.
“This is a non-partisan concern when we’re talking about the health and well-being of individuals,” Chapman told ABC News. “And so when we have the data to back it up, that’s how we’re able to better make the case for investing in green infrastructure, investing in neighborhoods and investing in communities.”
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