LaTricea Adams' parents and grandparents all grew up in Riverside, a neighborhood in south Memphis.
“This neighborhood is a historically and currently majority African American community,” LaTricea Adams, a resident of Memphis, said. "As you are about to enter into the Riverside community, you know it because you can smell it.”
Adams is also the CEO of Black Millennials for Flint, an organization focused on seeking environmental justice for lead-free African American & Latino communities.
Neighbors who live near manufacturing and chemical plants, highways and train tracks have worried about their health for decades.
Shelby County, where Memphis is located, received an "F” in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2022 report for ozone levels multiple years in a row. They’ve passed in the particle pollution category since the mid-2000s but repeatedly failed before then.
“The most polluted area in Memphis is southwest Memphis. There used to be a monitoring station,” Chunrong Jia, an air pollution researcher and associate professor at the University of Memphis School of Public Health, said.
Jia is a researcher who focuses on air pollution exposure and risk assessment. He collects chemicals in the air on this rooftop monitoring station, and then takes the tubes and analyzes the chemicals.
“Each peak represents a chemical,” he explained, pointing to the analysis on the computer screen. “For example, one peak represents benzene which is a carcinogenic chemical in the air, it’s ubiquitous, it’s an ingredient of gasoline and diesel.”
New funding could change the data collected on these pollutants. The recently signed Inflation Reduction Act provides $3 billion in funding for environmental and climate justice block grants, and $236 million will go toward increased air pollution monitoring, intended to benefit disadvantaged communities.
“There are two groups of air pollutants we often see in the area,” Jia said.
The first is criteria air pollutants. Jia said these include seven pollutants, like lead and particulate matter. Ground-level ozone is also included. The EPA says these pollutants can harm your health and the environment.
The second group is toxic air pollutants. Jia says this is a larger group of chemicals, and includes gasses like benzene.
“They are emitted from different industrial processes and often those low-income communities are by these air toxins because they are close to those industrial facilities,” Jia explained. "Studies have found that even at low concentrations, our exposure to low-level complex mixtures of these chemicals still can cause adverse health effects.”
The State of the Air 2021 report also found that more than 4 in 10 people in the U.S. live with polluted air, putting their health at risk. More data on what’s in the air could help researchers find more answers to how this impacts us and the environment.
“Where's the data,” Andrea Jacobo, a visiting assistant professor at Rhodes College and doctor of public health candidate, said. “It gives us the data we need to advocate for our communities to change the infrastructure."
Jia said he sees the funding providing multiple benefits, from strengthening current monitoring efforts to providing monitoring in areas that don’t currently have it.
“In particular those under-served communities, often they are located near those industrial facilities or highways or polluted dumping sites,” Jia said.
“We know that our communities are polluted. The next step is how do we address the chronic illness that comes from these pollutants that we see,” Adams said.