Fighting Unhealthy Air Pollution in Denver


By: Issamar Pichardo
  • Brown cloud over I-25

Unhealthy air quality in Denver and Colorado’s Front Range made headlines as the EPA declared us to be a “serious” violator of air quality standards in December of 2019. With a “brown cloud” of smog hovering over our city, it’s about time to consider what causes unhealthy air pollution, who is impacted, and what we can do about it.

Depending on your lived experience, you might be able to avoid the worst impacts of air pollution. But not everyone has that privilege. Residents of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods are aware of all the issues their community faces, including unhealthy air quality.

Environmental injustice is only hidden from the people that live outside of this area, who are not aware or informed about what is happening in their surroundings. 

Unraveling the history of air pollution in Denver reveals industry greed, health problems, and environmental injustices. Looking forward, we can follow the lead of our communities working to secure a clean air future.

Why is the air quality so bad in Denver?

Unchecked pollution and environmental health hazards from industrial activities are big contributors to Denver’s air quality problems. But unhealthy air quality is not equally distributed to all residents. Extreme polluters drive housing prices down and, combined with housing discrimination, this causes a trend of more low-income families and people of color living in heavily polluted neighborhoods. Gentrification has worsened the situation, leaving families with no option but to move to polluted neighborhoods.

In North Denver, the Globeville, Elyria-Swansea area has been an industrial area since its foundation, beginning with smelting operations, oil refineries, and meatpacking industries. As a result of the industrial activity in the area, Globeville and Elyria-Swansea sit in two active Superfund sites.

Map showing Superfund and contaminated sites in North Denver (UCD research group)

Superfund and contaminated sites in North Denver (UCD research group)

To this day, it continues to be a heavy industrial area surrounded by facilities for concrete, recycling and trash that practices burning, bone melting, sheep breeding, and cannabis growing — just to name a few. Construction to expand I-70 means that heavy trucks are active in the community through the night, disrupting sleep and making air quality even worse.

Map of traffic proximity in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea

Globeville and Elyria-Swansea are situated adjacent to major highways and the highest levels of traffic (UCD research group)

Corporations should be held accountable for their negative impact on the health of our communities. But in Colorado, industrial polluters get away with paying much less than what would be required at a national level. Each day that they fail to comply with air quality standards for emitting dangerous chemicals, Colorado polluters pay a daily maximum of $15,000, compared to a federal maximum of $47,357 per day. What’s more, air quality standards are based on suggestions from industry, not studies of public health or community experiences.

What does unhealthy air quality mean for communities?

The Globeville and Elyria-Swansea communities experience higher rates of asthma, respiratory problems, and cancer. Other residents have mentioned issues with their skin, especially among children.

For decades, community members have spoken up against corporate polluters, highway expansion, and displacement. But actual testimony is rarely incorporated in official reports, an oversight that was true of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s 2019 study on oil and gas setbacks.

Heavy industrial presence in Elyria-Swansea.

Heavy industrial presence in Elyria-Swansea.

The community understands it is not healthy to be surrounded by industry. Residents know corporate polluters have a negative effect on their health. But there is a lack of accurate, clear, and timely information about dangerous pollution that comes from government agencies or the polluters themselves.

A few universities and health agencies have conducted studies in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea that have not led to real action. It’s easy to see why: these studies did not appropriately involve the local residents who live, work, and play in the area. Scientists have not been willing to speak in a language the general public can understand, and studies have not considered language barriers. Polluters, too, have been vague and deceptive when explaining their impact on the community. 

What’s next?

An accurate study of long-term health impacts may take years to produce, but our communities are experiencing the consequences now. So, in response to inadequate documentation of their experiences, community members have stepped up.

Two students collect air quality data

UCD students David Smith and Gabriela Gonzales Sanchez monitor air quality.

Partnering with Dr. Ivan Ramirez, instructor in the Geography and Environmental Sciences (GES) department at the University of Colorado Denver, and six master’s students University of Colorado Denver, we completed a pilot study to document air pollution near highways in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea. Learning how to collect environmental data, understand it, and communicate about it empowers community members to be advocates. 

This pilot study is just the beginning. It shows us how much we need to start thinking about ways to improve our air. We need to see action from industries to curb their toxic pollution and protect families.

Community and student researchers pose for a photo.

Protégete and UCD research group (left to right): Issamar Pichardo, David Smith, Gabriela Gonzales Sanchez, Betsy Stratton, Nicole Maier, Morgan Cameron, Dr. Ramirez, and Robert Nass.

I envision a future where every grandparent, parent, and child is able to get a full night’s sleep and breathe outside without fear. A future where community members can access information about nearby industrial activities, and trust that reports are transparent and clear. A future where polluters are held accountable for the impact they have on the families who live nearby.

Decision makers are aware of the problems our communities face. Now, those in power must act to make a change: start prioritizing health over profit.

You can impact your legislator’s priorities — tell them to stand up for clean air for our communities!

Issamar Pichardo

Issamar Pichardo, Jefferson County Protégete Community Organizer