Interning at Gasp has definitely brought a lot of things to my attention regarding health and safety in the city of Birmingham. Birmingham per se contains an immeasurable number of pollutant factors, all of which produces damaging toxins into our air. These factors include industrialized buildings, trains, cars, etc.
The population—you, me, family, friends, babies, grandparents—are ALL affected by the pollution in the air, and a change is vital for the safety of our lives. Because what originates from the minor emission of CO2 and ground level ozone may lead to an asthma attack or lung disease, seen especially in children.
During my internship at Gasp, I have been working on a project to help implement EPA’s Flag Program into local elementary, middle, and high schools of Birmingham and Jefferson County. The objective of this program is to use brightly colored flags to help students become aware of daily air quality conditions. When students know the daily air quality, they can adjust their daily routine to reduce exposure to air pollution.
With the help of Michael, Haley, and Kirsten, I am currently in the position of reaching out to science educators that may be interested with incorporating EPA’s program into their schools. Hopefully by the end of my school semester a majority of schools in the Birmingham and Jefferson County get involved with this essential and foundational program.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Gasp Launches New Online Air Quality Tool
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (Jan. 5, 2017) — In an effort to reduce exposure to the harmful health effects of air pollution, Gasp this week announced that it has released a new online tool for users to get the current and next day’s air quality for the Birmingham area.
The Air Quality Widget displays the current air quality index, or AQI, with a corresponding color code based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow data. It updates twice per hour. The Widget also displays the following day’s forecasted AQI.
Gasp is making the Widget available for other websites to use as well. The code is available at gaspgroup.org/air-quality. Website administrators can simply paste the script into their website’s source code to render the Widget anywhere on their site. The Widget code is also available for different cities anywhere in the United States.
“As part of our mission for healthy air, we feel it is absolutely vital for everyone to have quick and easy access to the air quality report — just like the weather report,” said Outreach Director Kirsten Bryant. “We encourage everyone to bookmark our website so they can simply open their browser and get the current air conditions in just a click.”
The widget also links to information about the air quality index; the color-coding system used by the EPA; and information about the health effects of individual pollutants.
The new Air Quality Widget is an updated of a prior version of the tool that became obsolete after the EPA improved its security and data management.
Please contact Executive Director Michael Hansen at 205-746-4666 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the Air Quality Widget or other programs.
Gasp is a nonprofit health advocacy organization based in Birmingham, Ala. Our mission is to reduce citizens’ exposure to air pollution, educate the public on the health risks associated with poor air quality, and encourage community leaders to serve as role model by advocating for clean air and clean energy. gaspgroup.org
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — July 8, 2015 — The Jefferson County Board of Health, the governing body of the Department of Health (JCDH), voted tonight to dismiss a request by Gasp for a hearing on the issuance of a key air pollution permit for the Walter Coke facility in Harriman Park in northern Birmingham. The facility, which is owned by the financially troubled Walter Energy Company, is one of five named “potentially responsible parties” by the EPA for toxic contamination in the area.
In light of the Board of Health’s decision Gasp issued the following statement from Executive Director Stacie M. Propst, PhD:
“This decision is bad for the health and well-being of everyone who lives and works in Birmingham. It is the responsibility of the Jefferson County Department of Health and the Board of Health to safeguard our health. In denying affected Gasp members a hearing, this board has chosen to ignore a systemic threat to public health: toxic air pollution. Everyone deserves clean, healthy air to breathe. Period.
“It should also be noted that Alabama is one of the most unhealthy states in the nation. Nearly one-in-four Alabamians reside in the greater-Birmingham area. It boggles the mind that a board made up physicians and public health professionals would not take such an obvious opportunity to prevent the myriad diseases exacerbated by dirty air.
“The rapidly growing scientific evidence shows clearly that the air toxics emitted from plants like Walter Coke affect not only our lung health, but also can contribute to cancers, heart disease, learning disabilities, premature births, low birth weight and a whole host of neurodegenerative diseases.”
Gasp appealed both the Walter Coke and ABC Coke permits in 2014, citing evidence that pollution coming from the two plants exceeds the acceptable risk level according to the EPA and JCDH, and jeopardizes the health and quality of life of folks living in the vicinity.
A report titled “What Public Service? How the Alabama Public Service Commission’s misplaced priorities put utility profits over people” was released last week by Greater Birmingham Ministries. Gasp has been seeking transparency at the PSC for the past two years with a particular focus on the health impacts of Alabama Power’s energy planning decisions, which are made without real public participation.
“Now more than ever, the PSC institutes policies that are in no way equitable or economical for customers,” explains Greater Birmingham Ministries. “Instead, they boost the bottom line of monopoly utilities, and in doing so harm Alabama families, especially in low-income communities where the inability to pay utility bills can lead to eviction and homelessness.”
Just this past December, for example, the PSC approved rate hike of 5 percent, which will mean an additional $75 on electric bills for the average Alabama family. GBM details a fact that we’ve exposed before: Alabamians already pay a higher percentage —about 4 percent — of their paychecks for electricity than the residents of any other state in the country.
“In 2013, just under 4% of the median household’s income in Alabama was spent on electricity, more than double the least costly states,” GBM says.
Coincidentally, an analysis of municipal energy efficiency from the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy was also released last week. It found that Birmingham ranked 50th out of 51 large U.S. cities for energy efficiency. Just two hours away, Atlanta, which is served by Georgia Power, ranked 15th in the same report. In 2013, Georgia Power spent more than $30 million on energy efficiency programs, whereas sister company Alabama Power spent only $817,000.
Birmingham ranked 50th out of 51 cities for energy efficiency — scoring especially low in local government and utilities categories.
As GBM’s report demonstrates, low-income Alabamians stand to gain the most from investments in energy efficiency programs:
“Programs aimed at helping customers use electricity more wisely put money back in people’s wallets and are especially attractive to low-income customers who must spend a larger proportion of their income on electricity. According to ACEEE, each dollar invested in efficiency yields $1.24-$4 in benefits for customers through things like lower energy costs during peak usage — such as heat waves — and avoided costs from building new power lines.”
Our pocketbooks and health are affected by the PSC’s behind-closed-doors decisions. Alabamians deserve better.
Read the report below.
On Wednesday, July 30, the Jefferson County Department of Health held a press conference in which Jefferson County Health Officer Mark Wilson — our Doctor-in-Chief — presented “cancer data, death rate data and birth outcome data related to residents’ environmental concerns for the North Birmingham area compared to other areas of Jefferson County.” (See below for documents.)
The gist of the presentation was that the residents in the heavily industrial 35207 ZIP code — including North Birmingham, Collegeville, Harriman Park and Fairmont — do not suffer worse health outcomes than other Jefferson County residents. Specifically, they evaluated data over a 10-year period among African-Americans living in 35207 compared with African-Americans living in the rest of Jefferson County.
Gasp enthusiastically welcomes the efforts of Dr. Wilson and JCDH to study the health problems facing residents concerned with air pollution.
Birmingham’s Fox 6 News quotes Dr. Wilson as saying, “People should not be living a state of unnecessary fear or dread or hopelessness because they believe there is an unusually high risk of disease or premature death when it does not exist.”
According to Fox 6, Wilson went on to suggest that some of the health problems residents of 35207 are facing are a result of personal choices, and implicitly not because of environmental factors. “Wilson says he will also still stress health concerns of North Birmingham looking at their diet and lifestyles.”
Mike Oliver of The Birmingham News reported the story as follows: “Health data compiled by local and state departments of health appear to show good news for North Birmingham’s ‘toxic city’ neighborhoods that have battled pollution for years.”
How can that be? Gasp has documented countless stories of residents whose family members have died from cancers, whose neighbors suffer from COPD complications, whose children suffer severe asthma. We know that the stories told in “Toxic City” and in investigative reports like CBS 42’s “Deadly Deception” are just that: stories. Anecdotal evidence, if you will. How does our own qualitative observation square with Dr. Wilson’s claim that an elevated risk of premature death and disease “does not exist”?
Numerous studies (e.g., here, here and here) have shown that air pollution disproportionately affects people of color and low-income communities, which tend to have poorer environmental standards. The result is disparate health outcomes among people of color compared with the population at large. One study found the Birmingham metro to be in the top 15 urban areas with the largest disparities in exposure to air pollution between whites and nonwhites.
In other words, comparing the cancer rates of African-Americans in 35207 to the cancer rate of African-Americans in the rest of Jefferson County is bad science: Cancer rates among African-Americans are already higher than the white population who are not exposed to the same extent. Therefore, the rates appear statistically similar to one another. We already know that cancer risk in Jefferson County is higher than the rest of the state of Alabama. What science tells us is that health inequities among African-Americans are due in part to the disparity in environmental exposures everywhere. This problem is not confined arbitrarily to one ZIP code.
“Death Rates by Race/Ethnicity and Sex” via cdc.gov
The bulk of JCDH’s presentation relied on data from death certificates alone and did not take into consideration morbidity data such as hospitalization rates, or ER visits. This has broad implications about both the significance and the generalizability of JCDH’s analysis.
“The death rates from asthma and COPD,” Oliver writes, “were statistically the same between residents in Collegeville, Fairmont and Harriman Park compared to the rest of the county.”
People living with obstructive lung diseases are often not diagnosed as having COPD. This is particularly true in low-income areas and communities of color where a much higher percentage of residents lack health insurance and therefore lack the resources required for such a diagnosis. Most people who have undiagnosed COPD die from pneumonia, coronary artery disease, heart failure or diseases caused by atherosclerosis.
In summary, Gasp enthusiastically welcomes the efforts of Dr. Wilson and the health department to study the health problems facing residents concerned with air pollution. But we implore JCDH to conduct a real health assessment for the entire county, and not simply spin insufficient data as evidence that a problem does not exist. This serves only to further confuse the people of 35207, and all of Jefferson County, about a very real, well-documented problem for which we all pay the price.
Or to put it another way, as astrophysicist Carl Sagan explained, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”