Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Program Focuses On Tracking Air Pollution At US-Mexico Border

Traffic at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro, Dec. 19, 2016.
Nicholas McVicker
Traffic at the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro, Dec. 19, 2016.
Program Focuses On Tracking Air Pollution At US-Mexico Border
Program Focuses On Tracking Air Pollution At US-Mexico Border
Program Focuses On Tracking Air Pollution At US-Mexico Border GUEST: Erik Anderson, reporter, KPBS

San Ysidro sits next door to the world's busiest land border crossing. Cars and trucks roll through the community is three major freeways funnel traffic to the US-Mexico border. People living there worry all that traffic could be damaging their health. KPBS reporter Erik Anderson has details. Bruno Lopez holds on as he swings out over a slide. The energetic four-year-old let's go and plops down. A bit scary at first, but it doesn't keep them from trying again. Rudy Lopez smiles as Bruneau runs around the play structures but dad is keeping a close eye on his son. That's because Bruno Lopez has asthma. He was about a year old when he had his first respiratory issues. At 2 1/2 he came down with pneumonia asthma related. California Department of Health said asthma afflicts more than 400,000 residents more than one in 10 people and the rates are higher in congested urban neighborhoods like San Ysidro. Doctors told us if we could control it now it would not be permanent. That's when we wanted to say what can we do to help control it. Exposure to smoking and air pollution are two primary causes. Lopez said his sense of got them thinking about San Ysidro, even here at the expense of Howard Lane Park traffic is hard to escape. The 905 freeway and the heavily traveled surface streets border two sides of this giant green space. I have not thought about it before, he started having asthma but now that we look around we see we are so close to one of the biggest vehicle ports of entry in the world. We have three freeways here in San Ysidro, one carries considerable amounts of Traffic. San Ysidro is a community with 22,000 residents most of the homes are rentals. The tightly clustered houses are squeezed in between the international border and the freeways that funnel traffic North and South. The California Environmental Protection Agency and the state office of environmental health hazard assessment track pollution in the state, especially in economically challenged areas like San Ysidro. CalEPA Alex Barnum said they are getting a better picture of the race but he knows there are shortcomings of their data, especially around the border. We are trying to get a better measurement of that pollution and as you say, pollution doesn't respect borders it's something that we have to do a better job of in terms of gathering data around the border. That's important because the states analysis identifies priorities for funding. If there's a pollution problem the region could get help building parks are bikeways. While cross-border pollution isn't well measured gathering data North of the US side of the border isn't especially effective either. Bob Kard is San Diego's air pollution control officer. His office did have a monitor at the border but the findings were inconclusive. During the evening and morning hours in the commute some slightly elevated levels of particulate matter from diesel exhaust but really nothing out of the ordinary. That device isn't currently taking measurements it had to be taken down because of renovations to the Port of Entry. Bob Kard said the lack of a monitor doesn't change what is office knows about air pollution. He says 70% of the counties are pollution comes from vehicles. There are increased pollutant levels and if you are by the road and a diesel truck comes by and is smoking and your downwind, you are inhaling more than we would record. Longtime resident Rudy Lopez says his community needs to see that pollution is a serious issue in San Ysidro. He says the best way to do that is to prove there's a problem. There hasn't been a constant monitoring of the situation. I think that's one of the problems. There is an anything tangible. People to say you think there is a problem until we have -- until we monitor it and we can show that these are the numbers and cold hard facts, many people won't pay attention. That story from KPBS reporter Erik Anderson who joins me now and welcome. You have looked into efforts by community activists and local researchers to find out for themselves about pollution levels, what happened to those efforts? In the past what happened it hadn't been a push on the local level to find out what was going on in the air. The air pollution and control district did put a monitor their at the border that came at the request of people in their community. I don't think that satisfied the need to understand what the real issues are that are at play in the San Ysidro neighborhood. That single air pollution monitor at the border that was taken down because of construction, it yielded inconclusive results. I believe scientists have been critical of that single monitor, is that right? The idea is if you only have a monitor in one location it doesn't give you a good picture of what a pollution issue would be. Repetition is one thing that scientists look at when they set it up and one of the things that they did find was that there were some elevated particulate levels that comes from diesel exhaust. There were elevated levels during rush-hour but they didn't feel there was enough evidence to say it was definitely an issue. They didn't have the monitor up in place long enough to say conclusively, this is a continuous issue that the community has to do with all the time. That's why they were inconclusive. The officials you spoke to from the state EPA and the County air pollution control, they both seemed to say that they are trying but there are shortcomings in their data. What makes it so difficult, what are the difficulties and monitoring pollution in the border? For the San Diego district they monitor air-quality on a regional basis. They are looking at a much larger area of San Diego County. They have monitor scattered around the County, they are trying to gauge whether air-quality is safe, the air quality Index you might see in a weather report comes from their office. They are measuring on a larger scale. State officials are taking some of that data and trying to put it into what they call a green report that estimates the risk to a community and it looks at more than just air pollution data that has been gathered. It looks at income levels, number of other different things that might affect the community in a negative way. They admit that their tools are in complete. They don't have that Pacific on the ground data that they would like to have to be as accurate as they would like to be. They estimate there is a risk that they don't have data that says, this risk is linked specifically to this air pollution. What is the community doing to try and gather the data on their own? That's the interesting thing, this lack of data which has been around for years generated this push to install air pollution monitors. What Casa Familiar a social service area -- agency, they said we will work with San Diego State University researchers and put monitors and locations that we think are high risk locations, a senior Senator -- sender, a school places there at risk. We measure the air pollution overtime and find out whether or not there is a problem and if there is we will share the data with County officials and state officials. Hopefully, what that will do is open some of the state funding doors and federal funding doors that might allow the community to do things to improve the air quality but also have people deal with it. It could be filters in an elementary school so the kids aren't exposed to the pollution. It might be something like extra pedestrian walk ways or bicycle paths. The counties monitors cost up to $200,000. How much money did the community after get together to put up its own air pollution monitors? The monitors they are using measure number of different pollutants and they are fairly inexpensive. I think that was the drive behind it. University of Washington researchers working with San Diego state researchers have constructed this box that measures air-quality. It measures for things like nitrous oxide in carbon dioxide and a couple of other that are linked to pollution. It does a lesson $2000 a monitor, which is really something that opens the door for other communities to try if they are interested in finding out. The monitors themselves are not that expensive and they aren't terribly difficult to set up. Lastly can a private convince officials additional funds are needed? I get the sense in talking with CalEPA they are thirsty for this data. They would like to see the information. The people doing the research say one of the things that drives them in their effort is the fact that they want to make sure the data is accurate and it represents something that it is a reflection of what's going on. That's the only way the data will be valuable. It won't be valuable if you just say, there may be pollution, we think that there is this. He won hard data that says we can look at the results of these monitors over time and we can see there was pollution here and here. Taken altogether it's a problem and it's scientifically backed up data. That's key for the researchers. If the state officials see that they will accept it and put it into their project and figured in with the risk. I've been speaking with reporter Erik Anderson. The second part of Eric's story airs tomorrow on KPBS Midday Edition. It focuses on the groundbreaking community effort to document air pollution in the South Bay .

Program Focuses On Tracking Air Pollution At US-Mexico Border
San Ysidro residents may know soon whether the heavy traffic that moves through their community is carrying an air pollution risk.

Four-year-old Bruno Lopez grabs a crossbar on a playground structure on San Ysidro’s Howard Lane Park. He swings out, lets go of the bar and slides down to the ground. Moments later he’s on top of the slide, ready for more.

Rudy Lopez smiles as his son runs around the play structures. But dad is also keeping a close eye on his son. That’s because Bruno suffers from asthma.

“He was about a year old when he first started having respiratory issues. Around two-and-a-half, he came down with pneumonia, asthma-related pneumonia,” Rudy Lopez said.

The California Department of Health says asthma afflicts more than 400,000 San Diego County residents. That’s more than one in 10 people, and the rates are higher in congested urban neighborhoods like San Ysidro.

“The doctors told us if we could get it under control now, it wouldn’t be a permanent condition. And that’s when we really wanted to see what can we do to help control it,” Rudy Lopez said.

Exposure to smoking and air pollution are two primary causes of asthma.

Lopez doesn’t smoke, so that got him thinking about San Ysidro.

Even here at the expansive Howard Lane Park, traffic is hard to escape. The Interstate 905 and a heavily traveled surface street border two sides of the green space.

“I hadn’t really thought about it before he started having asthma, but now that we look around, we see we are so close to one of the biggest vehicle ports of entry in the world. We have three freeways here in San Ysidro, one of which carries considerable truck traffic,” Lopez said.

Program Focuses On Tracking Air Pollution At US-Mexico Border Part 2

Air pollution data is hard to find

San Ysidro is a community with around 22,000 residents. Most of the homes are rentals. The tightly clustered houses are squeezed in between the international border and the freeways that funnel traffic north and south.

The California Environmental Protection Agency and the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment track pollution, especially in economically challenged areas like San Ysidro. But getting good air pollution data near the border is a problem.

“We are trying to get a better measurement of that pollution, and as you say, pollution doesn’t respect borders, and it's something we have to do a better job in terms of gathering data around the border,” said Alex Barnum, CalEPA spokesman.

That’s important because the state’s analysis identifies priorities for funding. If there’s a pollution problem, the region could get help building parks or more bikeways.

And while cross-border pollution isn’t well measured, gathering data north of the U.S.-Mexico border isn’t especially effective either. San Diego’s Air Pollution Control District did have a pollution monitor at the border, but its findings were inconclusive.

“There were some slightly elevated levels of particulate matter from diesel exhaust, but nothing out of the ordinary,” said Bob Kard, San Diego’s air pollution control officer.

The pollution monitor isn’t currently taking measurements. It was taken down because of renovations to the Port of Entry. But it remains clear that 70 percent of the county’s air pollution comes from cars and trucks. The lack of a monitor doesn’t change that.

“There are increased pollutant levels,” Kard said. “And frankly, if you’re by the road, and a diesel truck comes by, and it is smoking, and you’re downwind of it, you’re inhaling a lot more than even we would be recording.”

Rudy Lopez wants to know if there is a serious pollution issue in San Ysidro. He would like to see proof.

“There hasn’t been a constant monitoring of the situation. I think that’s one of the problems. There isn’t anything tangible. People say, 'You think there’s a problem, but until we monitor it, and we can show, hey these are the numbers, these are the cold hard facts,' not many people are going to pay attention to it,” Lopez said.

Answers may be coming

David Flores, a community advocate who works for Casa Familiar, stands on the roof of an old stucco church in the heart of a residential San Ysidro neighborhood. Mexico is less than a mile to the south.

David Flores stands next an air pollution monitor in a San Ysidro neighborhood, Jan. 10, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
David Flores stands next an air pollution monitor in a San Ysidro neighborhood, Jan. 10, 2017.

Flores looks at somewhere else, however. He looks toward a gray metal box, big enough to put a pair of work boots inside.

“So this is the box; this is the equipment the University of Washington has developed. Really compact and in a weather-proof cover. You can hear the fan sucking up the air,” Flores said.

The air that’s drawn inside is exposed to several sensitive monitors. Flores points to the largest piece of equipment inside the box.

“This is the one that measures. [It's] taking all the data and measurements for all the different pollutants,” Flores said. “And here, each one of these represents a different pollutant: nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and nitrogen dioxide."

The monitors take readings, and they send the data wirelessly to a computer that can analyze and interpret the findings. Jenny Quintana, a San Diego State University public health researcher, runs the pollution monitoring project.

She is working with University of Washington researchers to make sure the air pollution data is accurate and meets rigorous academic standards.

“Actual numbers are very useful,” Quintana said. “In addition, we can find potential sources of air pollution. People have speculated that the border crossing is a source. They have speculated that burning activity and vehicle emissions in Tijuana can affect communities north of the border, but there’s no actual studies and data that can be provided for that, for this community.”

Scientifically verifiable information can be used to confirm the region has air quality issues.

Accurate data

A study that used high-end monitors back in 2008 was inconclusive, but if this effort turns up hard data on pollution, that could help San Ysidro. The community could push for state and federal money to build parks and bikeways, add air filtration systems to schools and senior centers, and build affordable housing.

Quintana says that’s why she and other researchers are working with the San Diego Air Pollution Control District. The community monitors are being tested right beside the district’s significantly more expensive and sensitive equipment.

“Because the technology is up and coming — not well-developed yet, not well-vetted. But this is all part of the vetting process where they can determine whether these things truly give an accurate picture of air quality at what I call the 'microscale level' — the street level — near sources of traffic or maybe a local industry,” said Kard.

Quintana said getting it right is crucial. If the monitors are effective, they will be able to help researchers determine what’s in the air and even where it may be coming from.

“I think data accuracy, to the extent possible, is a really important focus of this study and will help inform other communities as they try to carry out these activities,” said Quintana.

The possibility that this technology could play a similar role in other neighborhoods is pushing those involved in the research to make sure this study is done right. The team will monitor the air through the summer with the hope that they can develop an easy to read web page the community can use to monitor pollution in real time.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.