Suncor Energy's Commerce City refinery. Sept. 11, 2020. (Lucy Haggard, The Colorado Sun)

With the combination of greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas refineries, to excessive heat and wildfires, the air quality for all Colorado residents is getting worse and along with it, our health.    

It is critical that Colorado place health and equity at the forefront of its climate change and air quality plans and put measures in place to protect population health, especially for communities most exposed to the worst impacts of climate change and pollution. 

Colorado’s Air Quality and Control Commission has the opportunity to improve air quality as they move forward in developing plans to get Colorado to a 90% greenhouse gas reduction by 2050.

Ashley Anderson

While the state has slowly begun having conversations on climate equity, we need more conversations and actionable plans on how to protect communities who are burdened the greatest with toxic air and the health consequences that result.

You’ll also note that even under what is considered an aggressive timetable, it will still be 30 years before we reach the air quality goals. But neighborhoods across our state are struggling now, which is why any goals must include short-term help coupled with long-term strategies. 

Consider the 80216 ZIP code, which is rated by some as the No. 1 most polluted and environmentally hazardous neighborhood in the United States. Located within Commerce City, and including the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods and the River North District in Denver, residents are most impacted by pollution from the neighboring Suncor Energy oil and gas refinery, as well as the two major interstates that cut through the heart of this ZIP code.

Residents in this ZIP code are disproportionately at risk for the harmful effects of toxic air pollutants, including respiratory, cardiovascular and reproductive health issues.

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COVID-19 has made health disparities resulting from air pollution even more clear. A recent Harvard study shows that people living in communities who experience long-term exposure to air pollution have higher mortality rates from COVID-19 infection. 

It is unfortunate that throughout the United States and in the 80216 ZIP code, people of color and those with low incomes are most likely to live in polluted communities.

The cumulative impacts of poverty, racial inequities and health consequences of air pollution make this ZIP code and others like it in the state particularly vulnerable to Colorado’s worsening air quality. 

The only long-term strategy to alleviate the health inequities associated with air pollution is to drastically cut Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions and to do so quickly. 

The Air Quality and Control Commission aims to achieve a 26% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, a 50% reduction by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2050. Although these goals are bold, they are absolutely necessary to improve air quality, to protect the health of citizens and to play a role in slowing the Earth’s warming. 

These long-term goals must be led by short-term protections. 

Strategies like real-time air monitoring are critical to understand what toxins are being emitted and how they are impacting the health of our communities.

This type of monitoring is crucial in places like the 80216 ZIP code where the Suncor refinery emits more than 800,000 tons a year of pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and nitrogen oxides to name just a few listed in state records.

Using real-time air monitoring data to set health-based limits on air pollutants would create even more stringent limits on acceptable air toxin levels in the community. This would not only help Colorado further regulate major polluters, like Suncor Energy, but it would also help alleviate and prevent illness. 

Additionally, data from real-time air monitoring must be available to Colorado residents. Publicly available data that is easy to find and understand would help residents make informed decisions about their air quality risk when choosing daily activities and the recently passed reverse 911 notification system when air pollutants exceed thresholds would provide an additional safeguard.  

The connection between health and air has never been more important. Protecting the health of Colorado’s most vulnerable requires aggressive actions to execute Colorado’s greenhouse gas reduction goals and to take additional steps in informing resident of air pollution risks. The time to act is now. Our health depends on it.  

Ashley Anderson is a registered nurse and holds a Ph.D. in Nursing Science from Emory University. She works with Healthy Air and Water Colorado on the intersection of public health and climate change.

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