What if you found out you and your family might have been breathing in an invisible poison for years?
It sounds like a science fiction plot. But it’s a question that we and thousands of other Coloradans have been asking ourselves. Even for us, as professionals in health fields, trying to answer it leads to a bunch of scary unknowns.
Both of our communities, Pueblo and Lakewood, are near industrial facilities that emit pollutants known as “air toxics.” These pollutants — including chemicals like benzene, hydrogen cyanide, chromium, and ethylene oxide — can cause cancer or serious health impacts such as breathing difficulty, nausea, birth defects, or even death. And they’re more common in Colorado than you might realize.
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Perhaps the scariest part: Colorado doesn’t currently have health-based standards that limit how much of these toxic substances industries can emit. The federal government has identified over 187 hazardous air pollutants, but in many communities, there is little or no monitoring of how much is in our air. We’ve been placing too much trust in industries that have a record of prioritizing profit over our health to be transparent and protect us from air toxics. This approach has failed, and the harm falls most on those living close to industrial pollution, who disproportionately tend to be people living on lower incomes, people of color, and the workers at these facilities themselves.
So we are thrilled to see a bill at the Colorado statehouse that would make significant strides towards monitoring and limiting toxic air pollution. We applaud the sponsors Reps. Chris Kennedy and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, and Sen. Julie Gonzales, who are leading the fight for House Bill 22-1244, “Public Protections From Toxic Air Contaminants.”
The harm falls most on those living close to industrial pollution, who disproportionately tend to be people living on lower incomes, people of color, and the workers at these facilities themselves.
The bill directs our state’s air quality experts to identify the pollutants that pose a risk, and establish health-based standards for the amount of toxics in our air. It also provides resources for monitoring air toxics around Colorado, and empowers communities to set up their own EPA-quality air monitoring systems and send the data to the state.
One of us, Theresa Trujillo, has been fighting this toxic pollution in Pueblo for years. Theresa and her family have seen how the city they’ve lived in for generations is treated as the dumping ground for the industrial pollution that the rest of the state doesn’t want in their backyards. As a health equity advocate, Theresa is deeply concerned about the higher rates of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer in Pueblo, particularly in communities of color. We should do everything we can to stop air toxics from compounding the health disparities we already see.
Another pernicious thing about toxic air pollution is that it can slip by unnoticed. One of us, Jessica Barnette, didn’t know until she started researching this bill that a medical facility in her own community was emitting potentially dangerous levels of a chemical linked to cancer.
At least 15 other states, including Texas, Oregon, California and Kentucky, have already taken up this issue and adopted comprehensive state and local-level strategies to address air toxics.
HB22-1244 would ensure Colorado doesn’t remain one of the shrinking number of states that leave their most impacted residents in the dark about their health.
Contrary to opponents’ alarmist claims, this bill isn’t going to spell economic downfall for industries. In fact, it fosters collaboration between state agencies and industry to implement advanced technologies that help cut air toxics emissions and better protect their neighbors.
The presence of toxic air pollution threatens other economic drivers like tourism and recreation.
Most importantly, poor air quality costs Coloradans millions of dollars a year in additional health care costs, insurance premiums and missed work due to health complications. When it comes down to it, no amount of industry profit or short-term economic gains are worth sacrificing the health and well-being of Coloradans.
Like an invisible poison in science fiction, toxic air pollutants can easily disappear out of sight, out of mind. But Colorado families deserve better than simply accepting toxic pollution in our air.
We have an obligation to our children and to future generations to start cleaning up the mess we’ve made, and to stop making these messes to begin with. We hope our legislators will choose a legacy of clean air and health equity for all Coloradans instead of profit for a few.
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