Jars full of air and other lessons

By Sabrina Cerquera, Environmental Health Intern

“If you want to learn about the health of a population, look at the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the places where they live.” — Hippocrates

As an environmental studies and political science student at Lewis & Clark College, I held this ancient quote in the forefront of my mind to remind me of two things: we all share the same land, air and water; and we must reflect on the past in order to move forward with change. In the past six weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to put these theories, as well as my education, into practice as an intern at Oregon Environmental Council.

My project as OEC’s Environmental Health intern has been to do research and sample air quality for diesel pollution in communities from Portland to The Dalles and beyond.

The goal is to gather information that will help communities understand what they are breathing, and to give people the information they need to take action to protect their health.

When I tell my friends that I’m taking air samples, they look puzzled: do I have a collection of jars full of air that I take to the lab? Not exactly. I use a device called a micro-aetholometer, about the size of a big cell phone. Every 30 seconds, it sucks in a puff of air and draws it across a filter in order to measure black carbon. Black carbon is just one part of diesel exhaust—but it is a critical one. It is one of the tiniest of particles that can be breathed deep into the lungs, increasing risk of damage to heart, lungs, and brain. It is also a “short-lived climate forcer”—which means that, if we can reduce black carbon in our air, we can slow climate change such as snow and ice melt right now, right here in Oregon.

The sampling I’m doing is pretty simple: it’s just a matter of setting up the equipment and making sure it runs smoothly. I want a snapshot of the air I’m breathing in that moment of time, in that single spot—not trying to draw any conclusions about the air down the block, or later in the evening. The other part of the project is to observe the people, activities, vehicles and pollution sources that share the air I breathe as I monitor. In particular, I’m looking for heavy-duty engines, like semi trucks and construction vehicles, that are responsible for the most diesel pollution. I’m also looking for people—especially children, elderly and people with lung or heart trouble. It’s this kind of observation—seeing how communities interact with our shared environment—that has been the greatest learning experience for me.

As a transit-dependent Oregonian, I tend to take the same routes over and over again. Taking to the road makes me realize just how much traffic congestion and idling engines are a problem across Oregon, even in residential areas. I’ve always known that traffic is a problem in my home town of Miami, where trucks travel the interstate from Florida to New York. But the sheer number of long-haul and short-haul trucks, buses, and construction equipment that move along Oregon’s roads at all hours is startling.

But it’s not just the number of vehicles and amount of pollution that’s a surprise. One would expect a lot of heavy duty trucks in an industrial area, or a large number of buses at a major intersection.  What’s truly eye-opening is to realize that communities are occupying the very same space. The Native American Youth and Family Center, for example, is on Columbia Boulevard in Northeast Portland, surrounded by industry. Here, people come by bus and by car to find resources, learn, celebrate, and build community. And the price they pay? Exposure to a near constant stream of heavy duty trucks polluting the air around the center. Or take SE 82nd and Divison: a constant flow of children, grandmothers, and young people walk the intersection to get to a day care, a school and a community college. They may be aware of the dangers of heavy traffic, but they are no doubt unaware of the air pollution that I am measuring. And yet the exposure they experience—day after day, hour after hour—may be putting their health at risk.

These insights bring me right back to Hippocrates. With my air samples, I am looking at the air pollution that people can’t see, and it’s telling me about the health of Oregonians. Diesel pollution is a different problem than, for example, plastic litter. When you can see straws and bags littering your neighborhood, you can choose to stop buying plastic. But even if you could see diesel pollution, it’s not something you can stop by yourself. It is so important to recognize once again that we all share the land, water and air—and we have a responsibility to work together to protect it.

This project has also led me to a new quote that will guide my work in the future. Audre Lorde said: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” This is so true. In the communities I’ve observed, diesel is an invisible problem for people who are also trying to build and preserve community, get back and forth to work and school, get good food to eat and live in safe spaces. All of the things I learned in separate classes in college—law, policy, sociology, science—are all mixing together in my observations of this community in SE Portland. As I reflect on the past that shaped communities like this one, I can see that our future must include ways to unite the pursuit of clean air with everything else people need in order to live healthy lives.

I want to see a day when OEC’s offices are filled with people who reflect the diversity of Oregon, bustling with shared energy and ideas, embracing solutions that cut across silos to address the multi-issue ways we live our lives. As I settle into calling Oregon my new home, I hope to be a part of making this vision a reality. My work on air sampling, and sharing this information with communities, may play a part. By offering people information about the places they live, I hope to inspire them to unite around solutions that protect community health today, and for future generations.

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