Before working for the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), I was in graduate school in Buffalo, New York for two years. I was getting my MPH in environmental health and had a particular interest in air quality. Learning about the Tonawanda Coke Project is what sparked this interest.
What is the Tonawanda Coke Project?
In summary, an industrial facility in Tonawanda, NY, a suburb of Buffalo, was manufacturing coke, a product used as fuel in steelmaking. Residents near the facility noticed a number of impacts from the facility, including black smoke emissions and soot on porches and outdoor furniture. Residents also noticed health impacts they believed were related to pollution from the facility, including increased incidence of cancer, headaches, and other long-term health effects. This pushed residents to partner with the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to engage in citizen science and test the air for pollutants. Results showed elevated levels of toxic pollutants like benzene, which is a known carcinogen, resulting from pollution from the facility. In 2014, Tonawanda Coke Corporation was ordered to pay a $12.5 million penalty and make $12.2 million in community service payments for 11 counts of criminal violations to the Clean Air Act, one count of obstruction of justice, and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Read more about the Tonawanda Coke Project here.
This all occurred long before I lived in Buffalo, but Tonawanda residents are still feeling the impacts. Although this incident did not impact me directly, it did open my eyes to health equity issues and the need for enforcement of federal air quality regulations.
What does this have to do with me?
To be honest, I didn’t think air quality would ever impact me directly. Not until the last four years living in Denver.
Many of us recall the extreme wildfire season in Colorado and along the west coast last year. I remember seeing haze every morning, wondering if it was safe to take my dog for a walk. There were times when ash would literally fall from the sky. Eventually, I noticed the impact this had on my health – I would wheeze when doing regular daily tasks that I should have no problem doing. I was eventually diagnosed with asthma, which I attribute to the poor air quality in Denver.
On Saturday, August 7, 2021, Denver rose to the top of the poor air quality list. We had the worst air quality in the world that day, with an AQI of 179 at its peak, thanks to wildfires.
Though dealing with poor air quality is inconvenient for me as a person with asthma, as a public health professional and air quality advocate, I can’t help but think about how this impacts others. On days when we have poor air quality, I think about people who do not have the luxury of a shelter protecting them from ash, smoke, and breathing in the pollution. I think about people who live in areas where the air quality is significantly worse. I think about people who don’t have access to medical care the way I do and people who don’t trust our healthcare system enough to seek help. I think about the people who suffered from COVID-19 and are still struggling to recover with the added burden of poor air quality. I think of the wildlife that suffer outdoors and our shifting ecosystems. I think of our oceans and large bodies of water that take on the brunt of the pollution and the trees that filter the air for us.