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Cristina Lazo starts the daily routine of washing her daughter Alina’s hands, changing clothes and rubbing an ointment on her irritated eyes after coming home from the outside. Lazo believes the fumes from the nearby industrial sector are contributing to her 7-year-old daughter’s symptoms. 

Al llegar a su casa desde el exterior, Cristina Lazo inicia la rutina diaria de lavarle las manos a su hija Alina, cambiarla de ropa y aplicarle una pomada en los ojos irritados. Lazo cree que la fuga de gases del complejo industrial cercano están contribuyendo a los síntomas de su hija de 7 años.

On November 10, 2023, Cristina Lazo helps her six-year-old daughter Alina wash her hands at their home in Cloverleaf, Texas.

Neglected and exposed: Toxic air lingers in a Texas Latino community, revealing failures in state’s air monitoring system

Public data from a network of state air monitors around the Houston Ship Channel is hard to interpret and is often inadequate, leaving Latino-majority neighborhoods like Cloverleaf unaware of whether the air they breathe is safe.

by Alejandra Martinez and Wendy Selene Pérez

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.


People walk through San Jacinto Park as a tanker ship passes through the Houston Ship Channel in La Porte. Thousands of families live and play near the world’s largest petrochemical complex. 

Un grupo de personas camina por el Parque San Jacinto mientras un barco cisterna pasa por el Canal de Navegación de Houston en La Porte. Miles de familias viven y juegan cerca del complejo petroquímico más grande del mundo. 

People walk in San Jacinto Park as a large tanker ship pass through Houston Ship Channel on the background in Saturday October 28, 2023 in La Porte, TX
Hundreds of chemical plants, refineries and terminals line the ship channel as seen in Pasadena, less than 15 miles southeast of downtown Houston. According to a report by Amnesty International, people living near the Houston Ship Channel, often low-income communities of color, have lower life expectancies than those living in wealthier, mostly white neighborhoods further from the industrial area. 

Cientos de plantas químicas, refinerías y terminales bordean el canal de navegación, como se ve en Pasadena, a menos de 15 millas al sureste del centro de Houston. Según un informe de Amnistía Internacional, las personas que viven cerca del Canal de Navegación de Houston, a menudo pertenecientes a comunidades latinas y de color de bajos ingresos tienen una menor esperanza de vida que las que viven en comunidades de mayores recursos, de mayoría anglosajona, más alejadas de la zona industrial.

Houston Ship Channel and refinery plants are seen on Saturday October 28, 2023 in Pasadena, TX
Alina Lazo plays with her parents at Peter Piper Pizza in Houston. Due to her mother’s concerns about air pollution , she keeps Alina inside as much as she can. “But obviously, I’d like for her to get out, for her to be able to enjoy nature,” she said. “She loves to go to parks.” 

Alina Lazo juega con su papá y su mamá en la pizzería Peter Piper, en Houston. Debido a las preocupaciones por la contaminación del aire, la madre de Alina la mantiene dentro de casa lo más posible. “Pero obviamente yo quiero que ella salga, que pueda disfrutar (de) la naturaleza”, dice. “A ella le encanta salir a los parques”.

On November 10, 2023, Alina Lazo, 6, plays at Peter Piper Pizza in Houston, Texas.

Dirty air, silent costs in “sacrifice zone”

Deysy Canales kisses her 4-year-old son in the kitchen of their home. Since she moved to Cloverleaf, Canales says she is often sick, but she is grateful that her three kids remain in good health. 

Deysy Canales besa a su hijo de 4 años en la cocina de su casa. Desde que se mudó a Cloverleaf, Canales dice que se enferma con frecuencia, pero está agradecida de que sus tres hijos sigan gozando de buena salud.


On January 23, 2024, Deysy Canales, 32, kisses her son in the kitchen of their home in Cloverleaf, Texas.
Deysy Canales carries her inhaler everywhere she goes in case of an asthma attack, which she says are frequent. “You become so tired that you can’t do normal activities,” Canales said. 

Deysy Canales dice que lleva su inhalador a todas partes por si sufre un ataque de asma, lo cual le sucede con frecuencia. “Te cansas tanto que no puedes hacer actividades normales”, dice.

On January 23, 2024, Deysy Canales, 32, holds the inhaler she uses for asthma at her home in Cloverleaf, Texas.
Christopher Shackelford, a reverend at St. Andrew Catholic Church, blesses a churchgoer after service in Channelview. Shackelford, who has severe allergies, takes medications daily to prepare himself for sermons in front of his almost 3,000 congregants. He believes pollution in the area has harmed his health and the health of those who attend his church. 

Christopher Shackelford, reverendo de la Iglesia Católica St. Andrew, bendice a un feligrés después de una misa en Channelview, en el Condado de Harris. Shackelford, que padece alergias graves, toma medicamentos a diario para prepararse para los sermones ante sus casi 3.000 fieles. Cree que la contaminación en el área ha dañado su salud y la de quienes asisten a su iglesia.

On November 10, 2023, Christopher Shackelford, who is a priest at St. Andrew Roman Catholic Church, center right, blesses a churchgoer after a service at Saint Andrew Catholic in Channelview, Texas. On November 10, 2023,
Heidy Garcia plays with Tiana Cruz at the North Shore Rotary Park in Cloverleaf. The small parks nestled in the neighborhood are some of the community’s few gathering spots. 

Heidy García juega con Tiana Cruz en el North Shore Rotary Park de Cloverleaf. Los pequeños parques del vecindario son algunos de los pocos puntos de encuentro de la comunidad.

On November 10, 2023, Heidy Garcia, 16, left, plays with Tiana Cruz, 7, right, at the North Shore Rotary Park in Cloverleaf, Texas.

Gas pipelines near the Houston Ship Channel in Pasadena. In nearby communities, locals say the air often smells like rotten eggs, nail polish or burning tires.

Gasoductos cerca del Canal de Navegación de Houston en Pasadena. En las comunidades cercanas, los vecinos dicen que el aire con frecuencia huele a huevo podrido, esmalte de uñas o llantas quemadas.

Gas pipelines from a refinery plant are seen near Houston Ship Channel on Saturday October 28, 2023 in Pasadena, TX

State’s air monitoring gaps

Ebrahim Eslami, a research scientist at Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), points to air quality charts at his office in Spring, north of Houston. “It is really confusing,” Eslami said about navigating the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s website. “It’s a very, very tedious task even for me.” 

Ebrahim Eslami, científico investigador del Centro de Investigación Avanzada de Houston (HARC, por sus siglas en inglés), señala los gráficos de la calidad del aire en su oficina de Spring, al norte de Houston. “Es realmente confuso”, dice Eslami sobre navegar por el sitio web de la Comisión de Calidad Ambiental de Texas. "Es una tarea muy, muy tediosa incluso para mí".

Research scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) Ebrahim Eslami shows charts for air quality on computer screen in his office at HARC facility  in Spring, Texas on Tuesday February 13, 2024
Ebrahim Eslami said local governments and environmental organizations are trying hard to cover a lot of gaps in air monitoring. 

Ebrahim Eslami dice que los gobiernos locales y las organizaciones medioambientales se están esforzando por cubrir muchas lagunas en el monitoreo del aire.

Research scientist at the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) Ebrahim Eslami poses in HARC facility in Spring, Texas on Tuesday February 13, 2024
Alina Lazo watches a video while her mother Cristina Lazo looks out her front door while talking on the phone at their home in Cloverleaf. Sometimes the wind brings “smells like chemicals” and “you can see the dust in the house and in the cars,” Lazo said. 

Alina Lazo ve un video mientras su madre, Cristina Lazo, mira desde la puerta de su casa, en Cloverleaf, y habla por teléfono. A veces el viento trae “olor a químico” y “se ve el polvo” que ellas están inhalando, dice Lazo.

On November 10, 2023, six-year-old Alina Lazo watches a video at her home in Cloverleaf, Texas.
An air quality monitor in a neighborhood in Galena Park. Organizers at Air Alliance Houston worked to install their own community air monitoring network because of frustrations with the public data provided by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s network.  

Un monitor de calidad del aire en un barrio de Galena Park, en el área del canal de navegación. Los organizadores de Air Alliance Houston trabajaron para instalar su propia red comunitaria de monitoreo del aire ante la frustración que les producían los datos públicos proporcionados por la Comisión de Calidad Ambiental de Texas.

An air quality monitor is seen in a neighborhood on Saturday October 28, 2023 in Galena Park, TX
Community members prepare for a bike ride, organized by Air Alliance Houston, in Galena Park. The event is part of several educational tours to teach people about air pollution in the area. 

Habitantes de la comunidad de Galena Park se preparan para dar un paseo en bicicleta, organizado por Air Alliance Houston. La actividad es parte de una serie de recorridos destinados a educar a la gente sobre la contaminación del aire en la zona.

Participants of a bike ride event ,organized by Air Alliance Houston, prepare before the event starts on Saturday October 28, 2023 in Galena Park, TX

Residents turn to community monitoring


Juan Flores’ only daughter was born with a rare cancerous tumor, an event that helped motivate him to become a community organizer. Now, as a program manager with Air Alliance Houston, Flores works with residents to teach them about air pollution. 

La única hija de Juan Flores nació con un tumor canceroso poco común, algo que lo motivó a convertirse en un organizador comunitario. Ahora, como gestor de programas de Air Alliance Houston, Flores trabaja con los habitantes para enseñarles sobre contaminación del aire.


Community leader and a organize of the bike ride event to raise awareness about air pollution Juan Flores poses on Saturday October 28, 2023 in Galena Park, TX
Participants of the bike ride make a stop on their tour at landfills created from dirt dredged during a ship channel expansion in the petrochemical corridor. There have been concerns about possible contaminants in the soil.  

Los participantes del recorrido en bicicleta hacen una parada en los vertederos creados a partir de la tierra dragada durante la ampliación del canal de navegación en el corredor petroquímico. Ha habido preocupación por posibles contaminantes en la tierra.

Participants of the bike ride event to raise awareness about air pollution, make a stop on the roadside in between the land fill sights which were made from dirt left during the ship channel expansion work on Saturday October 28, 2023 in Galena Park, TX


 

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