Citizen scientists, Latino residents to track air quality in East Las Vegas 

Citizen scientists, Latino residents to track air quality in East Las Vegas 
Traffic is shown in the Spaghetti Bowl Wednesday, July 28, in Las Vegas. (Ronda Churchill/Nevada Current)

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

LAS VEGAS — Study after study shows an important and often overlooked need in Latino communities: cleaner air.

Air pollution is one of the most prevalent environmental health risks in the United States, but is disproportionately inhaled by Latino Americans.

Now a community-led project in Southern Nevada is betting local Latino households and vendors can develop community-driven solutions to poor air quality using data collected from their own neighborhoods.

On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded Southern Nevada an environmental justice grant to study air quality in East Las Vegas, where about 65% of residents are Hispanic.

The two year project, “Buen Aire Para Todos” or Good Air for All, will equip 20 participating East Las Vegas residences with indoor air quality sensors and ten mobile sensors for street vendors and food trucks, giving underrepresented communities the ability to track air pollution in their own neighborhoods.

Ten stationary outdoor sensors will also be installed on public buildings, street lights, or other public areas, allowing the City of Las Vegas to access real time, high resolution data for one of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Researchers will get their first look at the detailed air quality data in a month.

The $300K grant program will be led by ImpactNV with support from Desert Research Institute, the City of Las Vegas, Make the Road Nevada, and the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. 

“What I’m most excited about is that the affected community will see some attention to what they’re experiencing on a day to day basis,” said Lauren Boitel, executive director of ImpactNV. “We have the attention of a federal agency and now the community is working together to bring attention to the needs and using data to prove it.”

Long term policy changes that can improve air quality for East Las Vegas residents is the main goal of the project, said Boitel.

Poor air quality is a major concern for Latinos, who increasingly live around high-capacity urban roads in Nevada, according to a 2017 study by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. A recent study by Pew Research found that about 70% of U.S. Latinos believe air pollution is a big issue in their local community compared to 49% of non-Latinos.

Latino children are about three times more likely than non-Hispanic white children to live in a county where air pollution levels exceed federal air quality standards and are twice as likely to visit an emergency room for asthma, as compared to white children.

Las Vegas City Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, who represents Ward 3 in East Las Vegas, said “ better air quality is certainly a health issue that will benefit residents, especially children whose lungs are most vulnerable and are more likely to be hospitalized with respiratory issues.”

With an older housing stock, low access to personal vehicles, and proximity to the intersection of two major highways, residents of East Las Vegas are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality caused by pollution. 

One sensor will be installed in the East Las Vegas Library, located in the City of Las Vegas’ Ward 3, an area where 66% of residents are Hispanic.

While Latinos create less air pollution than white Americans they are also more likely to be exposed to health-deteriorating air pollutants, according to a 2022 study published in Nature.

“Our communities are the ones being impacted the most yet we’re the ones least responsible for some of these impacts,” said Audrey Peral, director of organizing for Make the Road Nevada.

Residents in East Las Vegas’s Ward 3 are exposed to more vehicle emissions despite driving personal vehicles less and using more public transportation. Nearly 23% of households in the ward do not own a car compared to about 10% of residents in the entire City of Las Vegas, and they are twice as likely to commute to work using public transportation than those living in the rest of the City of Las Vegas, according to city data.

Project leaders for Buen Aire Para Todos hope the project can start to address some of the long-standing issues related to environmental justice and air quality in East Las Vegas.

Boitel said the monitoring is focusing on East Las Vegas due to the lack of county owned air quality monitoring stations in the majority Latino community.

“It’s one of the areas with the worst air quality because of emissions and heat,” Boitel said. “It’s right next to the spaghetti bowl.”

The project will also focus on expanding community awareness, education, and outreach to help residents better understand air quality measurements and health impacts of poor air quality and extreme heat.

“The project connects residents to science that directly impacts their lives,” said Derek Kauneckis, associate research professor at DRI. “It develops a neighbor-level air quality monitoring grid where the community has control over the data.”

Make the Road Nevada, an immigrant rights organization, is currently looking for participants in East Las Vegas. Peral, the director of organizing, said Make the Road moved into environmental organizing to address unmet needs in Latino communities like public transportation and air quality.

“We want to make sure that our communities are actively involved in every decision, whether it be research, advocacy, or policy,” Peral said. “Our communities must be prioritized because they are the ones most impacted by climate change and pollution.”

Funds for the project were part of a $4.3 million carve-out in the American Rescue Plan Act to identify and address disproportionate environmental or public health harms and risks in underrepresented communities.

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