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'Poster Child' Of The Climate Crisis: CA County Seeks Justice For Area Hit Hard By Air Pollution

The sun sets on a plowed field that will need Colorado River water to yield a crop October 17, 2002 near El Centro, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)
The sun sets on a plowed field that will need Colorado River water to yield a crop October 17, 2002 near El Centro, California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

More than four out of 10 Americans breathe polluted air where they live, a recent study finds.

The American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report, released earlier this month, also says people of color are 61% more likely to live in counties with unhealthy air compared to white people — and that climate change is only making matters worse.

One place experiencing all of this firsthand is Imperial County, California, an agricultural community near the Mexico border that has a majority-Latino population and some of the worst air pollution in the country.

The ALA report grades counties based on levels of ozone and particle pollution. Imperial County received a failing grade.

This comes as no surprise to Luis Olmedo, executive director of the environmental justice group Comite Civico Del Valle, who describes the county’s unhealthy air patterns as “the poster child of what the climate crisis looks like.”

A large portion of the population sees the impacts of such poor air quality represented in their medical bills, he explains. Still, making the connection between poor air and health “is not as clear and visible as we would hope it would be,” he says.

Imperial County, a heavily industrialized area surrounded by a mountain range, shares its air with two other jurisdictions — South Coast Air Quality Management District in the north end and the populous Mexican city of Mexicali to its south, he says. Each jurisdiction has its own set of policies for air pollution control.

Neighboring Mexicali — a metropolis of more than 1 million people — has been a concern because while they do have good air pollution rules, they’re “not enforced as stringent as we wish they would be,” Olmedo says.

Workers in Imperial County “not only feed the nation” but help “feed the world,” he says. The county is home to massive farms that keep corporate America — from fast-food chains to small restaurants — operating. The area also serves as a major port for transporting goods between the U.S. and Mexico.

But there’s a clear lack of policies that ensure air quality management for the entire region, he says. The underserved community — a vital part of the country’s economy — needs investment to solve the problem, he says.

It’s been hard for the county to meet federal clean air standards, and now, new pollution sources are cropping up, adding to the crisis.

As the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, dries up from the persistent drought that’s gripped southern California, toxic dust from the lake bed is blowing into Imperial County.

There’s been agricultural runoff filled with fertilizers and other pollution found in the Salton Sea. As the body of water dries up, toxic dust from the lake bed is blowing into Imperial County. It’s a “climate catastrophe,” Olmedo says.

Dust may seem “out of sight, out of mind” for some, but he says there’s evidence that particles have blown as far as San Diego and Los Angeles, sparing no community within a 100 mile radius.

“These toxic particles are going to continue to exacerbate asthma,” he says. “We were among the highest per capita in terms of asthma among children.”

These contaminated particles can lodge into lungs, causing respiratory problems. It can be small enough to enter the bloodstream, he says, and depending on the toxicity, can result in a root cause of cancer.

Imperial County residents’ lungs were already compromised to begin with, Olmedo says. The pandemic compounds the problem: Studies show breathing polluted air can make COVID-19 worse and increase a person’s risk of dying.

Communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis as well as the pandemic. In California, 40% of the population is Latino, but they make up nearly 56% of COVID-19 cases.

Now that more people are comfortable wearing face masks, Olmedo encourages his community to continue wearing face coverings to protect against COVID-19 and as well as reduce exposure to unhealthy air.

Olmedo and Comite Civico Del Valle team members have been raising awareness about the connection between the county’s air and the virus. They’ve partnered with young community members to use social media and word of mouth to educate others about the issue.

The group also put together Salud Sin Fronteras, he says, a collaborative initiative with Latino-serving organizations to increase access to vaccines, testing and economic assistance, and “to try and make the connections between the environment and the disproportionate impacts that we face with COVID.”

Despite the grim scenario, Olmedo says he’s “optimistic” the Biden administration will make air quality a priority and “bring some justice” to the lungs of Imperial County.

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RaySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.