When Cemelli de Aztlan hears her 12-year-old daughter wheezing and coughing at night, she doesn’t know what feeling comes first, the sadness or the anger. That her daughter has trouble breathing sometimes makes her sad.
That El Paso’s failing air quality continues to endanger her family is what makes her angry.
In the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report, El Paso County received an F in ozone pollution – the same failing grade it has received every year since 2000 when the organization released its first report. The El Paso and Las Cruces metropolitan area ranked as the 14th worst out of 227 cities and metro areas analyzed in the report. The county received a passing grade in particulate pollution.
The report points to a persistent challenge in reducing ozone pollution – a problem many blame on commercial traffic and idling vehicles at the international bridges and highways. Poor air quality has significant health impacts on the area’s residents, which community organizers say will worsen if serious measures aren’t undertaken – and soon.
The lung association’s report, released last week, analyzed air quality trends since 1996 based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It also looked at the populations sensitive to high levels of ozone and fine particulate matter, two pollutants that increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Ground-level ozone, the main component of smog, forms when nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds react in the sunlight and high temperatures. Vehicles and industrial facilities are major sources of the airborne chemicals that form ozone.
Breathing air contaminated with ground-level ozone can trigger coughing and asthma attacks, and make it difficult to breathe, according to the EPA. The toxic gas can also cause long-term harm by damaging airways and making the lungs more susceptible to infection.
Air pollution has robbed people of a quality of life and vulnerable children can’t even play outside, de Aztlan said. Over the years, she and community organizers with Familias Unidas del Chamizal have asked government entities at the municipal, state and federal levels to implement ways to cut emissions and minimize impacts, such as diverting trucks from the Bridge of the Americas port of entry that run into her neighborhood.
Proposed renovations at Bridge of the Americas should prioritize air quality, de Aztlan said. Earlier this year, the mayors of El Paso and Juárez agreed to explore using an automated shuttle to move more cargo and reduce idling traffic at the Zaragoza International Bridge. The project would be the first of its kind at an El Paso port of entry.
De Aztlan lives in Barrio Chamizal, a neighborhood in Central El Paso she described as full of mixed immigrant and low-income families with limited access to health care.
“Our abuelas are making tea with hierbas from their jardines for babies that can’t breathe … but those in power are doing nothing,” she said.
What causes ozone pollution in El Paso
El Paso recorded 40 unhealthy ozone days in 2022, the same as in 2021, according to the American Lung Association report. El Paso had 39 days classified as “unhealthy for sensitive groups” and one day classified as “unhealthy” overall. Las Cruces recorded slightly fewer unhealthy ozone days than the previous year.
The worst ozone days occur in the summer when temperatures are higher. Data charted by the organization shows smog in El Paso has been on the rise since 2016.
“One of the largest contributing sources to ozone in El Paso is the vehicle emissions. I think the biggest challenge is the vehicles that are idling for multiple hours at our ports of entry,” said Jason Sarate, who oversees the city of El Paso’s Air Quality Program. “When you have vehicles and semi-trucks lined up on the freeways waiting to cross into Mexico or cross into El Paso, those are real issues.”
TCEQ spokesperson Victoria Cann attributed emission sources to Mexico, which include small-scale commercial and residential activities, industrial sites and vehicles driving across the border.
In an email, Cann told El Paso Matters that there is “strong evidence” that the majority of idling traffic comes from northbound crossings, vehicles entering into El Paso from Mexico, citing the 2021 Texas-Mexico Border Transportation Master Plan from the state Department of Transportation.
The number of northbound truck crossings in the El Paso, Santa Teresa and Chihuahua region rose 62% between 1996 and 2019, according to the plan. Juárez contributes between 60%-70% of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds in the region, per the EPA emissions inventory, Cann added.
De Aztlan argued that blaming Mexico is a convenient way for TCEQ to “wipe their hands clean” of responsibility, noting that many idling trucks are coming to and from facilities owned by U.S. companies. Almost all of the 300 or so maquiladoras in Juárez are owned by foreign companies. Factories and truck traffic have boomed along the border since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
The EPA classifies areas as attainment or ranging levels of nonattainment based on whether they meet national clean air standards for various pollutants. Those cities or regions that don’t meet the standards, designated as nonattainment areas, have to implement plans to improve air quality. Failure to complete the plans puts those nonattainment areas at risk of losing federal subsidies.
Environmental organizers have battled back and forth with the TCEQ and the EPA since 2018 when the EPA originally classified El Paso as an attainment area but the neighboring Sunland Park, New Mexico, as a nonattainment area.
After a lawsuit from City of Sunland Park and environmentalists, claiming El Paso contributed to Sunland Park’s pollution, the EPA combined El Paso and Sunland Park in 2021 to form the El Paso-Las Cruces marginal nonattainment area.
The TCEQ challenged that designation last year, claiming the El Paso portion of the region would have met the clean air standard if it weren’t for contributions from Juárez.
The EPA proposed approving TCEQ’s case in March but the decision hasn’t been finalized. Without that approval, TCEQ anticipates the EPA would reclassify the area to the next, more stringent designation of moderate nonattainment, Cann wrote.
How air pollution harms vulnerable people
The American Lung Association lists several populations as susceptible to health issues from poor air quality. Children under the age of 18 are vulnerable because their lungs are still developing, while adults over the age of 65 have weaker immune systems, said Charlie Gagen, the Texas spokesperson for the American Lung Association.
Exposure to ozone pollution not only irritates the lungs, it can cause inflammation and damage the delicate linings of the airways. And it’s not a one-off event; breathing ozone on a regular basis can cause permanent damage to lung tissues and potentially to your DNA, Gagen said. People are at higher risk of developing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Pregnant people are also an at-risk group because exposure to air pollution causes oxidative stress, which can increase the risk of preeclampsia, a high blood pressure disorder during pregnancy. Environmental contaminants can also damage and cross the placenta, affecting the growth and development of the fetus, he said.
A multitude of health issues runs in de Aztlan’s family, from diabetes to hypertension to asthma, and poor air quality can exacerbate conditions beyond respiratory diseases. This is one of the reasons why she’s been vocal about the Bridge of the Americas updates and TCEQ’s claim that El Paso had done enough to meet the ozone standard.
“Part of healing my daughter and my family and my health is putting these guys in check,” de Aztlan said.
In El Paso County, nearly 15,600 children have asthma, according to the report. In the adult population, more than 8% have asthma and more than 5% have COPD, emphysema or chronic bronchitis, according to 2020 data from Healthy Paso del Norte.
Groups respond to air quality woes
Local government, environmentalists and public health groups are taking different measures to address the air quality problem.
The city of El Paso is in charge of maintaining air quality monitors and checking that manufacturing facilities meet regulations, said Sarate from the Environmental Services Department. The city also collects samples at gas pumps around town to ensure fuel formulas do not increase the amount of toxic vapors emitted in the air, he added. When the city finds a violation, the city can write up for a notice of enforcement and fine the facility, he said.
Sarate is also part of the Joint Advisory Committee, a group formed in 1996 to recommend air quality improvements in the Paso del Norte air basin. The committee, made up of public and private sector members in the United States and Mexico, meets up every quarter to share updates on air monitoring projects and studies.
“I don’t think anybody denies there are challenges there. We are a binational metroplex and we are dealing with international policy and international law,” said Nicole Alderete-Ferrini, Climate and Sustainability Officer for El Paso. “But I also think that it is important for the average El Pasoan to understand that it’s too easy for us to say, ‘Well (Mexico) that’s the biggest part of the problem so I guess there’s nothing we can do.’”
Alderete-Ferrini said El Paso is receiving a $1 million Climate Pollution Reduction grant from the EPA to study El Paso’s sources of greenhouse gas emissions and put together strategies to address those sources. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are driving the climate crisis, and an increasingly hotter Paso del Norte can encourage more ground-level ozone formation.
This grant is stage one for planning, but stage two means getting federal funding to put those strategies into action, Alderete-Ferrini explained.
“I will simplify and say we do know that the way we move, transportation, has a large effect on us,” Alderete-Ferrini said. “So how much we’re in our cars, how much we drive, how much we idle, what’s happening at the international bridges.”
The response to how much time people spend driving is more complex than telling people to drive less, Alderete-Ferrini said. The problem is wrapped in various sectors from neighborhood development to public transportation to infrastructure, which includes roads that are not owned by the city.
De Aztlan questioned the gap between collecting data and passing measures.
“There’s definitely a history of feeling like guinea pigs, being studied, but nothing behind done,” she said. “When do the studies merge with the action, when does that happen? Creating that pathway still needs to be done.”
The American Lung Association recommends actions in its new report that can be taken at the individual, municipal, state and federal level.
It suggests that cities and counties adopt a climate action plan. Last year, organizers for Sunrise El Paso and Ground Game Texas turned in more than 39,000 signatures to put a Climate Charter amendment on the ballot. Proposition K, which would add wide-ranging climate policies to the city charter, is up for vote in the May 6 election.
Business and fossil fuel interest groups, from the El Paso Chamber of Commerce to Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance, have launched an aggressive campaign against the proposition, claiming that the climate charter would raise taxes and wipe out jobs – though independent energy researchers have questioned some of those claims.
Gagen could not comment specifically on El Paso’s proposed charter amendment, but said the health benefits of improving air quality should be taken into consideration. Improving public health can save money in the long term with healthier infants, fewer children who have asthma, fewer adults with COPD, and fewer emergency visits to the hospital, he said.
“For now, local governments have authority to take action,” Gagen said. “El Paso has the authority to take action to reduce unhealthy air.”