It's worst real early in the morning, said Ma Ornela. She's lived in Pasadena since 2006 and the distinct smell from the area's array of industry and related truck traffic is something she's still not used to. "Just walking to my car," she said, "my nose starts running and my eyes burn." She loves the city, the second largest in Harris County, sitting to the east of Houston, but the air quality isn't part of the reason.
For several years now, the Kinder Houston Area Survey has tracked attitudes about the Houston area's quality of life pointing to the 1999 Los Angeles Times story that declared Houston the new "smog capital." The city cleaned up its image and its air, the report argues, thanks in part to the business community. But for many Houston-area residents, there's still work to be done. In fact, 61 percent of Harris County residents said that the control of air pollution in the Houston area was just fair or poor, according to the latest Kinder Houston Area Survey. Only 7 percent said it was excellent.
In October, Air Alliance Houston started surveying four neighborhoods in the Pasadena community. Health concerns linked to the area's pollution emerged almost right away. "There have been many concerns about health issues that residents consider to be linked to exposure to air pollution," Air Alliance Houston wrote in a statement. "Among those are skin cancer, breast cancer, asthma, and others." On Sunday, the organization will hold a town hall to share its findings.
Residents have long suspected there was a link between the area's industry and poor health outcomes. Those concerns were elevated during Hurricane Harvey when petrochemical plants and refineries released emissions above the state limits. In November, the Air Alliance Houston team surveying several neighborhoods in Pasadena found that "of 1,025 completed surveys, 417 participants reported experiencing a combination of different symptoms during and after Hurricane Harvey, including allergies, asthma, excessive coughing and eye irritation."
But the issue has existed for years.
"About half of the point sources for air pollution in the Greater Houston area are concentrated on the eastern side of Harris County," according to a summary of a 2006 task force report for then Mayor Bill White. "Over twenty of the largest industrial sources are located in East Houston," the report added. "The Port of Houston, and the Ship Channel that feeds it, passes through the middle of this area and generates a variety of hazardous pollutants, adding to those from the nearby industrial sources. Four major highways intersect this area including, Interstate Highways 10, 610 and 45 and State Highway 225; each generating substantial pollution from high traffic density." All of this contributes to an unequal geography of environmental pollution.
The latest Kinder Houston Area Survey results also show an uneven response with some groups rating air quality significantly worse than others. In Harris County, 74 percent of U.S.-born Hispanic residents, for example, rated the control of air pollution as fair or poor, compared to 66 percent of white residents and 60 percent of black residents.
"It was nasty then and it's nasty now," said Juan Gaona about Pasadena's air quality when he moved there in 1986. His daughter was born around the same time. Now 32, she was diagnosed with asthma when she was three or four years old, according to Gaona. He later moved his family to La Porte but still owns several businesses in Pasadena.
"You can feel it in the eyes when it rains," he said. "Immediately when it rains, it smells real bad."
Like Ornela, he found a way to shrug it off. Every neighborhood has some issue, he said, "roads, drainage, smoke, whatever." Of course, some don't have any of those issues, he acknowledged, "for privileged people." Gaona said he doesn't see that changing.
In terms of general quality of life issues, most Harris County residents feel the same, according to the most recent Kinder Houston Area Survey. Only 40 percent of those who had lived there at least three years said the quality of living conditions was getting better. Sixty percent said it was "about the same" or "getting worse."
Air Alliance Houston and others are hoping to change that. The group has supported an anti-idling ordinance in Pasadena, similar to those passed in Galena Park and Houston. At the town hall Sunday, the organization will also report on other health and safety concerns in the area.