DENVER — Environmental advocates and elected officials held a panel on Monday to discuss the threat of air toxins and air pollution across Colorado.
Experts say awareness is vital to curb emissions and secure funding to mitigate the impact on the most vulnerable communities.
This week, an ozone action day alert is in place until Tuesday for the Front Range.
This summer, Colorado experienced several days of smog, which posed health risks even for people in good health.
In August, Denver ranked number one for the worst air quality in the world as smoke from wildfires triggered advisories and pushed people indoors.
Although the air pollution level was considered to be good Monday, Gary Nesbitt said there have been days he wakes up in the middle of the night and his lungs are on fire.
“I wake up in the middle of the night just like somebody is on my chest," Nesbitt said. "I have no respiratory issues. It's just the smog and the air pollution."
Pegah Jalali, an environmental policy analyst for the nonprofit Colorado Fiscal Institute, did a presentation on her research during the panel.
Her research shows climate change is creating a challenge for Colorado, and the effects are evident as we experience hotter days, severe drought and extreme wildfires.
Her study focused on the impacts of climate change on heat, ozone pollution, droughts and wildfires. She predicts longer and hotter summers will lead to more wildfires and poorer air quality unless people take action and policies change.
“Denver metro area and also Commerce City, in specific, are among the cities that have the worst air quality in Colorado,” Jalali said. “It’s really critical that we act now and that we cut our emissions and make a targeted investment for the protection of our communities.”
Environmentalist advocates, a pediatrician and community leaders discussed the threat of air pollution and air toxins, specifically for the most vulnerable of climate change exposure: people of color, children, the elderly and the poor.
“They have historically lived in areas with high levels of pollution with lower access to green space,” Jalali said.
She says refineries, like Suncore located in Commerce City, exacerbate air pollution, which poses a threat to residents. Commerce City is predominately made up of minority and low-income families. Jalali said these families are some of the most vulnerable because they can’t afford to move.
“They have historically lived in areas with high levels of pollution with lower access to green space,” Jalali said. “Low-income people and communities of color tend to have less access to resources that prepare them for facing these negative impacts of climate change.”
Dr. Anthony Gerber with National Jewish Health said that persistent pollution can have long-term impacts on vulnerable members of the community.
“The short-term symptoms can eventually turn sometimes into lung disease in some people,” Gerber said.
He said bad air quality can also affect how well children develop.
“Kids who grow up in levels with high pollution have a risk of never achieving normal lung function," Gerber said. "So, they might not get the kind of size lungs that they would have if it wasn’t for the pollution."
Jalali says resiliency and policy changes are key to creating change. She also encourages people to take matters into their own hands and make adjustments, like biking or walking to work or run errands instead of driving.
The panel expressed the importance of raising awareness to secure funding and investments to protect communities and people at a higher risk of developing respiratory problems.