By Monika Shankar and Paula Torrado

In an editorial published in early July, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that smog is making a comeback.[1] A large picture of the downtown LA landscape obscured by hazy air pollution was featured prominently below the article’s ominous heading. Although residents and advocates have fought and won many victories in the battle to clean up the air in recent decades, the fact that air pollution still threatens local communities, the region and the state, is a sober reality we all must contend with. Furthermore, it is clear that any proposed solutions must center impacted and front-line communities if we expect to see real and tangible change on the ground. This is the ambitious charge that the South Central LA Project to Understand the Sources and Health Impacts of Local Health Pollution, or SCLA:PUSH, is undertaking. Led by PSR-LA and comprised of residents, community advocates and academics, the SCLA:PUSH initiative was formed to address the legacy of air pollution in South Central LA, including the impacts on residents’ health and quality of life. Our prescription for change is grounded in 3 main goals: build our capacity to understand air quality, mobilize our collective power to address systemic failure, and ensure we get our fair share of resources to improve the air.

South Central LA communities have long understood the problem of poor air quality, because they live it every day. And the moderate amount of data that exists substantiates these narratives. We know that South-Central LA is overexposed to a variety of air pollutants emitted by a range of air pollution sources. For example, there are 1,318 hazardous sites (like auto-body shops) within 500 feet of 585 sensitive receptors (like schools).[2] Sensitive receptors are most at risk of developing respiratory problems and other chronic diseases. In 2010, the South Central LA area had one of the highest asthma emergency visits and hospitalization rates in the county.[3]  Lastly, South Central LA census tracts consistently and overwhelmingly score in the top 5-10% most vulnerable communities in both environmental and socio-economic factors, according to the California Environmental Screening Tool.[4]

Since our launch in January 2019, our coalition has been busy reaching out to various communities across South Central LA and developing an integrative and creative process for building our collective capacity to understand and assess the scale and character of poor air quality. Our work is centered in community residents’ needs, because they are experts in understanding the physical and environmental landscape of their neighborhoods. To kick-off our efforts, the SCLA:PUSH team hosted an informational session on May 18, with over 60 individuals attending. At the event, over 50 community residents explored in depth information regarding our project, what California has proposed to tackle air pollution through the passage of bill AB 617, and how to get involved. Following the event, there was tremendous excitement, as evidenced by residents overwhelmingly wanting to participate in the work directly.

“We need people and resources to rally up together to fight for air quality in our community and we can do that through the Air Quality Academy” – SCLA community resident

 

The primary way residents, advocates and organizers of South Central LA can get involved in the SCLA:PUSH efforts is through our Air Quality Academy. This two-day training aims to educate residents in designing a community air monitoring network to collect data, analyze and interpret local findings, and strengthen the community’s power to advocate for cleaner air policies.

The first of three Air Quality Academies was hosted at our community-based partner SCOPE’s office on June 27 – 28, where a cadre of 23 trainees were able to experience collective learning through interactive activities. These included an experiential historical timeline and air pollution political landscape felt activity, skits of the “bad actors of air pollution,” a quality of life game, and an interactive activity to understand false and politically realistic solutions to clean the air in SCLA. By the end of the training, participants had developed a comprehensive set of skills including understanding the science of air pollutants, the process of collecting data and how to engage in policy and regulatory change.

“It is sad to see air pollution near my kid’s schools, but I am excited about learning how to best monitor the air with the Air Quality Academy, so I can best protect my family from exposure” – AQA graduate

 

By engaging in the SCLA:PUSH initiative, community residents have the opportunity to become radical scientists, air quality ambassadors, creative mappers and community researchers. For example, as radical scientists, residents build their own community air monitoring and ground truthing plan to examine the sources of pollution in their neighborhoods, and how that impacts air quality. As creative mappers, they explore their own experiences and wisdom to tell the stories of their communities’ assets and hazards through mapping. The common vision is to build knowledge and capacity in order to tackle systemic injustices around air pollution regulation, many of which have historically neglected South Central LA residents health & well-being.

The SCLA-PUSH initiative is just getting started, and we are excited for the coming year where we will continue to co-empower and mobilize South Central LA communities. On August 10, we will host another informational session to share our work and build the coalition. We will also host two more rounds of the Air Quality Academy in September and December. Through this initiative, South Central LA will continue to push for creative and community rooted solutions that center health and well-being while addressing environmental injustice through progressive policy change. Together we are building and creating a common vision of thriving, healthier, and cleaner communities for South Central LA.

If you are interested in participating in our project because you are concerned about air quality in South Central LA, contact Paula Torrado at ptorrado@psr-la.org or Monika Shankar at mshankar@psr-la.org, or call (213) 689-9170.

 

[1] Editorial Board. “Editorial: Smog is making a comeback in Southern California. That’s beyond unacceptable.” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-smog-gets-worse-20190703-story.html?fbclid=IwAR1Mw5nS1zaWHK6sjhayCBsfAaySfWAsTopnnNR3IgNmemSPUaP7Wb8qP28

[2] PSR-LA 500 Feet Project: http://500ft.psr-la.org/

[3] Huerta Eric, Between the 110 and the 405: Environmental Injustice in South Los Angeles, SCOPE-LA, Nov 27 2018

[4] CES 3.0: https://oehha.ca.gov/calenviroscreen/report/calenviroscreen-30