Clearing the Air: Episode 1 - Something in the Air
Something in the Air
Clearing the Air is an eight-part narrative podcast series about air pollution in Colorado and how we are navigating this complex problem that knows no borders. The series is hosted by Kristan Uhlenbrock, Director of the Institute for Science & Policy. For more information and resources from this episode, check out the episode summary page. Enjoy the transcript and to listen to the audio version visit clearingtheair.org.
KRISTAN UHLENBROCK: I’m walking along train tracks that cross a small creek in a heavily industrialized neighborhood in Pueblo, Colorado. I’m with Jamie Valdez. He and his family have lived here for generations. A clear blue sky stretches overhead, but there's something in the air.
JAMIE VALDEZ: It's definitely like a chemical smell or metallic. Almost like an ore or oily kind of smell.
KRISTAN: Jamie tells me Pueblo has a nickname: Pew Town.
JAMIE: It's like a double entendre. A lot of people pronounce Pueblo incorrectly. They say Pew-eblo and so it was like that combined with the smell came up with Pew Town.
This [pointing] Salt Creek neighborhood is just on the east side of the steel mill and we'll be able to see the Salt Creek as well. On the other side of these trees here is I-25
KRISTAN: Pueblo sits along the Front Range of Colorado, about 100 miles south of Denver. The Sangre de Cristo mountain range rises up in the west. The flat plains extend out to the east. The Arkansas River cuts through the center. Pueblo is known for many things, including the moniker “Steel City'' because it was one of the largest steel producers west of the Mississippi.
JAMIE: Pueblo has a real industrial look to it. The houses are kind of quaint. Like it just looks like it was made for row homes of steel workers and mine workers and so forth.
KRISTAN: The industrial legacy has shaped a proud community identity. But it has also created a range of environmental problems. Like many communities around the world, Pueblo has a lurking enemy: air pollution. Whether it’s from natural sources or human contributions, what is in the air we breathe can be toxic to our health. In Colorado, Pueblo is ranked as having the highest environmental health risk. This is why Jaime wants to do something about it
JAMIE: It feels like generation after generation, we're fighting the same struggles. Whether it's civil rights or our environment being polluted, our air being polluted. Pueblo is my home, I grew up here, and I think it's a great place to live.
KRISTAN: Jamie works for Mothers Out Front, a national organization focused on tackling climate change and environmental problems. In Pueblo, they're working on air pollution.
JAMIE: I would really like to see that cycle broken and see my grandkids be able to grow up in a world where they and all other future generations have equal access to clean air and clean water and public lands and open spaces and the things that are so vital to us as social beings, as well as beings of this natural world. I don't want them to have to be fighting the same fights that I've had to fight and my mom had to fight and my grandparents and so forth.
KRISTAN: Jamie is a father and grandfather. He was a high school athlete who worked in electronics, and then construction until he had a spine injury, qualifying him for disability. It was this experience that inspired him to get a degree in psychology and begin his journey to make change where he saw injustice. And on deeper reflection, he can trace his motivation back to his upbringing.
JAMIE: I had instilled in me at a young age this sense of responsibility and duty to the society in which I live. As I got older I became an activist and an organizer myself, this was something that my mom and I shared in common.
I have a passion for this work, but it also, there's another meaning to it for me. My mom, who was a major influence on me - up until I was 7 years old, she raised me as a single mother - really provided for me. She was working and going to school full time and still found time to read to me and teach me the things I needed to know to be an advanced student when I started school. She was the first and most influential role model of my life.
I really looked up to her a lot. She passed away in 2020. I feel like doing this work with Mothers Out Front where I get to elevate the voices of mothers who are often a marginalized group is a way that I can continue to honor my mom. I just feel like I am continuing to honor my mom with the work that I'm doing and hopefully providing a good example for my daughters and my grandkids and anyone else that may happen to look on and see the work that I and my teams and our organization are doing
KRISTAN: With a salt and pepper goatee, glasses, and an ease with which he folds his hands, Jamie has an air of calm around him. But you can see the dedication and determination in his eyes. He credits his multicultural background to not only how he views the world, but also his legacy and the impact he hopes to have.
JAMIE: I've got multi-generational roots in Southern Colorado and we are multicultural family. My family is Spanish and indigenous, Yaqui and Hickory Apache, we've also got some Irish in us and my biological father was German. And then when I was seven years old, we married into a Black family.
I've taken in as a personal philosophy the Iroquois philosophy of the seventh generation principle. Seventh generation principle says that we have a responsibility to consider the impacts of our decisions on the next seven generations. And I feel that very deeply.
KRISTAN: The urban Front Range of Colorado frequently makes headlines for our poor air quality. But we’re not alone. Air pollution impacts our entire state, our neighbors, our world. Scientists estimate that there are at least 5 million premature deaths each year due to air pollution around the globe. And in parts of Colorado, the air we breathe ranks dangerously high for particle pollution and ozone, which are some of the most harmful types of air pollution.
Whether it’s the cars we drive and airplanes we ride, the industries that make our sidewalks, energy, and medicine, the wildfires blazing through our forests and the ways we build our cities, or what floats across the sky from a country thousands of miles away. Our air is a complex soup of ingredients – which impacts not only the health of our most at-risk neighbors and children but the health of all of us, our economy, and our climate.
The causes and solutions to poor air quality are both local and global, simple and complex. Yet when emotions are high, people’s health is at risk, and tradeoffs need to be made, how do we solve this wicked problem?
This is: Clearing the Air: The Hazy Future of Our Skies. An eight-part series about the state of the air in Colorado and how we are navigating this complex problem that has no borders. My name is Kristan Uhlenbrock. And from the Institute for Science and Policy, welcome to season three of our podcast Laws of Notion.
Working from the Inside
KRISTAN: From our first breath to our last exhale, air is a vital shared resource. And many of us probably take it for granted. Especially, depending on where you grew up or currently live. Take me for example. I grew up in a rural part of Indiana surrounded by farmland and forests. The closest city was about an hour away. Air pollution wasn’t really on my radar until I began living in other places and learning more about it. And now here I am in Colorado experiencing it.
But Michael Ogletree’s experience was different.
MICHAEL OGLETREE: My name is Michael Ogletree. I'm the director of the Air Pollution Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
I grew up in southern California, on the east side of Los Angeles. In the early nineties, it was a time when there was a lot of social unrest as well as pretty bad air pollution. Growing up in that space really piqued my interest in not only environmental justice and working with those types of communities but also in air quality.
KRISTAN: Michael is one of the most unassuming public leaders I’ve encountered. The first time I met him was at an event where he sat intently listening to community leaders and scientists. It wasn’t until later when I spoke with him directly, that I realized who he was. The second time we met was for coffee, and he rolled up on his bicycle. He’s got a steady gaze and a quiet demeanor, which can sometimes mask his passionate commitment to serve communities, find collaborative solutions, and solve our air quality problem for future generations.
MICHAEL: I have four kids myself, all very young. The work that we're doing at the division is going to impact their future lives. So it's something that I think about when I think about the work that we do here at the division. It’s a personal thing for me, having kids and working towards improvements for that next generation is something that I think is really important. At the end of the day, what we're trying to do is protect communities from poor air quality and making sure that the air quality in Colorado is as clean as we can.
KRISTAN: Michael and his colleagues have a really, really big job. His division hands out permits and enforces the laws. For years Colorado has been struggling to get air pollution under control. The list of challenges is long…
MICHAEL: Increased vehicle miles traveled, meteorological considerations. We can't change the meteorology and that's always gonna be there. Then there’s outside factors such as wildfires that we don't have control over. Regardless, we need to control what we can and continue to make strides in reducing pollution from the sources where we have the authority to improve.
KRISTAN: So many factors contribute to poor air quality. Some within our control, some not. Think about increasing population density, emissions from industrial processes, transportation, wildfires, natural weather phenomena, impacts from neighboring regions, the list goes on.
MICHAEL: We have something called the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, so that covers specific pollutants.
KRISTAN: There are six pollutants under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Which were established under the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the limits and regulates them.
MICHAEL: Some of those have historically been a problem and are less of a problem now, and some of those persist. Some of the ones that are a top of concern for regulators are particulate matter (PM 2.5 – the size in microns) which is fine particulate matter, and then ozone. So we're a non-attainment for ozone. There's other pollutants in there such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. We have heard concerns from communities about air toxics. Through legislation in 2022 we're actually building out an air toxics program and working towards regulating air toxics. We're starting to do measurements of different hazardous air pollutants that previously haven't been regulated in the state of Colorado.
KRISTAN: For ozone specifically, the EPA recently reclassified parts of the Front Range from serious to severe after years of being out of compliance. This will bring new rules and regulations. For example, more companies that previously didn’t need a permit to operate would need one now.
Colorado is also focusing on air toxics, after controversial legislation passed in 2022, directing the state to regulate them at a level more stringent than EPA’s standards. Air toxics are dangerous gasses or elements in the air specifically linked to cancer, birth defects, and other health issues.
The EPA has a list of 188 toxic air pollutants, like benzene, asbestos, and mercury. And they come from all kinds of sources. Things you might not think of like: dry cleaning facilities, gasoline, and paints.
Another big hurdle Michael faces is public perception, whether that’s from community activists or businesses. Some say the state isn’t doing enough. Others say it’s doing too much. Also trust in government is just low. Depending on your political affiliation, income, or education level, your view of government regulation might vary greatly from your neighbors. And Michael is keenly aware of this.
MICHAEL: There's a lot of pressure to lead the division in a way that's open, transparent, and building trust. For me, it's been fundamental to the way I've operated. It's very time consuming, but I think it's worth it. I think that community has been looking for and asking for leaders of organizations to be more open and transparent and accessible. And it's something that is important to me and worth the time, effort, stress, anxiety, all that comes with that.
A lot of times when I talk to members of those communities, it reminds me of my childhood. Growing up in Southern California, you can be like on the beach swimming and there's power plants like lining the beach. My father worked at a power plant in Southern California, and I would do internships there so I’m familiar with industry and how that works. My mother's from El Salvador and she moved to Southern California when she was 18. I see a lot of the people in those communities and a lot of that resonates with me because I have been in communities like that growing up and really wanting to honor their lived experience in the work that we do.
KRISTAN: Before going into government, Michael was physically climbing smokestacks to test and control air pollution. Think chimneys on industrial buildings.
MICHAEL: A stack testing company, so anything with a stack. Power plants, cement plants, different types of refineries. Also things like pharmaceutical incinerators, so all different kinds of stacks. The beginning part of my career there, was actually climbing stacks, putting probes in testing, and the latter half was more at the base, doing the analytical chemistry behind that. So stationary sources. And really there, you know, I saw some of the areas that could benefit from improvement into how we as regulators oversee some of industry.
KRISTAN: Whether he’s working directly at the site of emissions or navigating the labyrinth of policymaking, Michael knows how the levers of change work. The challenge is: there is no single lever to pull to immediately clean up the air.
MICHAEL: Some of those entities who are asking us to do more and to do it faster, they are disproportionately impacted and we see that in the health disparities in those communities. In terms of the speed of change, I think we've been doing a really good job of getting regulations or different rules before the commission and having hearings almost monthly. So I think a lot of the policy pieces are moving quickly. I think some of the lag and frustration that we hear from communities and others is that the air quality itself may not be changing as fast and there's a couple of reasons why,
In some cases, the rules require changes to processes or different technologies to be placed on those sources. So it just takes time to actually do that work. If you have to buy equipment, set up equipment, get contractors in place, a lot of that takes time. And then for some of the larger pollution reduction strategies, those also take time. There are just a lot of confluencing factors that impact ambient concentrations of pollutants. So you have to really look over larger time scales to see how those changes become effective.
KRISTAN: A part of Michael’s job is empowering communities across the state with information, resources, and support. For example, he’s been working with Jamie and the Pueblo community to learn what challenges they have and what they need. But truly engaging with diverse communities takes humility.
MICHAEL: One of the things I try tp start all of my conversations with community is first by acknowledging that I don't have their lived experience. I currently don't live in that community. We are taking into account some of their lived experience as we go forward in different rule makings and trying to, as much as possible, meet them where they're at and take those experiences and draw a direct line from their input to how we do our work and how we pass regulations
KRISTAN: Air pollution is a deeply complex problem. To truly begin to solve it, we all need to rethink what it means to be treated fairly no matter our racial, social, or economic background. What it means to have a seat at the decision-making table. And what it means to have access to clean air.
In the Shadows
KRISTAN: On a sweltering 102-degree day in Pueblo, Jamie Valdez and I drove around looking at different parts of the city, from where he grew up to how close neighborhoods are to some of the major industrial sites.
JAMIE: This used to be the Colorado smelter, and now it's a Superfund site. All these folks that live in this area, the neighborhood, have had to have their yards tested for lead and many of them have had the top foot or so replaced with fresh soil. But then you see just 20 feet away from the fence where all that toxicity is, is a little kid's playground area. So I feel like this is kind of what happens in these kinds of sacrifice zones where you end up with a Superfund site, and a park is built right on top of it, and just kind of hiding it rather than actually addressing it.
This is a Midwest steel company, so a lot of these neighboring plants are connected with the steel mill's operations in some way. There's also a bunch of metal scrap yards down the hill here that we're going to go by. And you can just stay on this road. This is going to take us out to the Comanche plant.
KRISTAN: Comanche is a coal-fired power plant that is slated to close in 2031. The Comanche plant has a record of being the largest source of air toxics in the city.
JAMIE: And then we’ve got GCC over here. And there's another cement plant west of town called Holcim cement. So, when I say we've got several of the state's largest emitters of air toxics, these are some of the ones I'm talking about. Both of the cement factories. There's also Goodrich Carbon, also known as UTC Aerospace or Collins Aerospace, out in the Pueblo Industrial Park. And they are one of the state's largest emitters of benzene, which is a known carcinogen.
KRISTAN: As I’m driving around with Jaime, he shares more about his personal life.
JAMIE: I did suffer from childhood asthma. I really feel that that was from the pollution in the air. And my grandson now suffers from childhood asthma.
KRISTAN: High air pollution areas experience higher rates of breathing problems and other health issues.
JAMIE: We have increased rates of asthma, COPD and cardiovascular disease here in Pueblo when compared with state averages. We've got several of the state's largest emitters of toxic air contaminants.
KRISTAN: Often, these health burdens are not shared equally. They tend to disproportionately impact children, the elderly, lower-income or historically marginalized communities. In Pueblo County, 44% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, double the state average. And admissions to the emergency room for asthma are also almost double that of the state average. If you zoom in on the neighborhoods closest to the major industrial sites, it’s some of the lowest-income communities. And one of the challenges has been the lack of air pollution data in these neighborhoods.
JAMIE: We know that there's got to be some connection there, but one of the things that we often see with environmental sacrifice zones like Pueblo is that there's a lack of data to make the correlations needed to really start to do something to improve those health outcomes.
KRISTAN: Jamie and others are hoping to change that.
JAMIE: Mothers Out Front has a new project, called Clean Air Pueblo, that received a $50,000 grant from the Windward Foundation. And this grant money is being used to purchase air quality monitors.
KRISTAN: They have purchased 18 monitors and hope to fill in some of the gaps in the current network called Purple Air.
JAMIE: Purple Air has an open source model, which we felt fit in very nicely with our goal of data democracy. We want the data to be available to the public
KRISTAN: Jamie and I pull up the Purple Air network on my phone.
JAMIE: Each of these green dots represents an air monitor in the city. Let's see, I think this one is my house. Oh, no, that's the APCD. Air Pollution Control Division, that's downtown. This one right in the middle of town was the only one previously around.
KRISTAN: There are five monitors spread around different parts of the city and only eight total throughout the entire county. Pueblo County is about the size of Delaware.
JAMIE: Anything from 0 to 50 is good.
KRISTAN: 0-50 shows green on the map. This is the air quality index, or AQI, and it is a metric created to help communicate levels of air pollution in relation to health.
JAMIE: And so you see on the graph there, you see spikes and you can compare those spikes across the various air monitors throughout the city and that way you can see sometimes one neighborhood will have a spike and other neighborhoods don't. We don't always know what's causing those spikes, but it's nice to be able to track those for now, at least. And eventually, hopefully, we'll be able to zero in on what's causing those spikes as well.
KRISTAN: Pueblo, like many at-risk communities, is at a crossroads. As we gain more knowledge about the effects of air pollution on people’s health and the environment, there are tough decisions to be made. Decisions around what’s fair, what’s just, and what can be done. Not to mention the difficult questions around the future of a community's identity and how it evolves.
JAMIE: Pueblo has a history of industry mostly centered around the steel mill here in town. The CF& I steel mill at one time was the largest employer in Colorado. Pueblo was really a booming town, largely because of the steel mill. It's this kind of two sides to this coin where we have this proud legacy of being a blue-collar union town, but with that has come a lot of environmental degradation and injustice.
Give Me the Health Talk
LISA CICUTTO: We all know inflammation from when we get a mosquito bite. You see that nice bump. That's swelling. That's inflammation.
KRISTAN: Meet Lisa Cicutto, a seemingly unflappable practitioner and researcher, who works on environmental health. Breaking down medical and scientific data into easy-to-understand information is her superpower.
LISA: I'm a nurse practitioner with a PhD. I am the director of community outreach and research at National Jewish Health, as well as I am a professor at the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus, and direct the clinical science program, and the Director of Translational Workforce and Development at the University of Colorado AMC. I can't help families and communities live their optimal lives without understanding both the environment and their health.
KRISTAN: Lisa is using the analogy of a mosquito bite to help me understand why air pollution can impact our health.
LISA: Air pollution is a substance or thing that's introduced into the environment that is harmful to us as humans, but also plant life, animals. Exposure to poor air quality is a huge irritant to all of us and those that have underlying health conditions, it's even more so an irritant. And when you think of irritant, I want you to think about inflammation. And when I say inflammation, what that means is a redness, a puffiness, swelling. And what that is, is your body's trying to protect itself.
KRISTAN: As someone who is a mosquito magnet, the connection helps.
LISA: When you have more inflammation on board - your airways, your other systems that involve a mucus membrane, which is our nose, our sinuses, our throats, our lungs, our GI system - all of that can become inflamed and more irritated so that when we are exposed to other things we even respond more. So we're more vulnerable and this vulnerability can be seen in how we can fight infections. We know that after exposure to poor air quality, our immune system - because of that inflammation - isn't working as well. So we can't fight infections as well.
Following exposure to poor air quality days, we have an increase in emergency department visits of about 30% for lung health reasons. We have about a hundred percent increase in visits related to asthma in the emergency department. People who are exposed to air pollution are sicker and live shorter lives.
KRISTAN: What Lisa is driving home is how much we’re learning about the connections between underlying health conditions and how it puts us at greater risk when exposed to air pollution.
LISA: Poor air quality doesn't discriminate. It will impact all of us, but some of us are more at risk of the negative impacts from poor air quality, such as those individuals who have underlying chronic illnesses and those individuals who have breathing issues. Asthma is interesting for us because people of all ages have asthma, but also people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, which tends to impact older people. But what we see is people with breathing issues and chronic underlying lung conditions who are all more at risk. We see people who have cardiac health issues. We're also seeing those with diabetes and those with chronic kidney disease, particularly those who are on dialysis. And what we're seeing when we start looking is that we're seeing that more and more people are impacted by poor air quality. And this is because we're starting to look.
The Kids Aren’t Alright
KRISTAN: There’s one group that is affected by poor air quality more than anyone…
LISA: Kids are really more susceptible to the impacts of poor air quality, and that's because their lungs are smaller. Their airways are smaller. So that if they get a bit of that same degree of inflammation proportionally, their airways are much more reduced. So instead of breathing through like a nice straw, when we go and get a milkshake, they are now breathing through that coffee stirrer.
KRISTAN: The same amount of air pollution in a smaller space has a bigger impact.
LISA: They also breathe at a faster rate. They're inhaling the same amount but they're inhaling a lot more times in a minute than an adult is. And so as a result, they have a higher exposure to that toxicant or pollutant. We do know that those who live in environments with really poor air quality for years have lower lung capacity. Their lungs do not fully develop. So then they take this into adulthood.
KRISTAN: Exposing children to poor air quality can have a lifelong impact. Where you grow up matters.
LISA: We are all impacted by poor air quality. We can't escape it. However, there are inequities with exposure to poor air quality, and there are inequities that create greater disparities for people's health because of the totality of the environment that they live in.
KRISTAN: Many of us only think about air quality when we can see smog hanging over our city or wildfire smoke blanketing our neighborhoods. But poor air quality can also be invisible. Researchers estimate that globally, air pollution can take up to two years off of the average life expectancy, which is about the same as smoking, and greater than alcohol use or unsafe water.
LISA: You and I have been talking about environmental health and the impacts of poor air quality, but most people aren't. They don't talk about air quality. They don't talk about environmental health. As a result, we don't understand environmental health. We don't understand what's going on with our environment. And in a way that's very convenient for us because when we're not talking about it, when we're not learning about it, in our heads, it doesn't exist.
I know those blue skies. There is nothing more traumatic to me than not seeing my blue skies. Like I know it's happening and it's scary, but I don't wanna be scared into inaction. I think people in Colorado love their way of living. They love the lifestyle. That's what brought a lot of them here who weren't fortunately born here like I was. That's what attracts them. And I want to preserve that. Not just for ourselves but for future generations.
KRISTAN: Think about the place you live. What do you love about that place? Maybe it’s your community, family, or the activities you enjoy. Maybe it’s the outdoors and nature. Maybe it’s those blue skies. What you probably don’t say is: I love the air around me. We take it for granted. Our air is often invisible. So it’s easy to ignore something we don’t always see. That’s our human nature. But as we gain knowledge, it just might be harder to look away.
In the upcoming episode we’ll look at how communities around Colorado – and the world – are facing similar challenges to clean up our air and working towards solutions to make that possible. But to know where you are going, it’s important to know where you came from. So up next, we’ll learn more about the Clean Air Act, how we’re learning from our past, and how that informs today.
Next episode: Clean Up Your Act
Clearing the Air is a production of the Institute for Science and Policy at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
This episode was written by Kristan Uhlenbrock, Tricia Waddell, and Shel Evergreen, with help from Nicole Delaney, and fact-checking by Kate Long. Sound design is by Seth Samuel with tracks from Epidemic Sounds and audio engineering from Jesse Boynton.
To listen to the audio version, or for more information and additional resources on air quality in Colorado, please visit clearingtheair.org.
Check out all the seasons of the Laws of Notion podcast at lawsofnotion.org.
The Institute for Science & Policy is committed to publishing diverse perspectives in order to advance civil discourse and productive dialogue. Views expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, or its affiliates.