“When regulators don’t take action to make sure our air is breathable, we equip ourselves with the knowledge and technical capacity to do it effectively on our own”

Officials wouldn’t make sure Kansas City, Kansas air was safe to breathe. So we did it.

By Beto Lugo-Martinez KCMO Resident


Most of us in the Kansas City metropolitan area benefit in one way or

another from living in one of the nation’s  most important rail hubs to move goods around the country. However, not enough of us are aware of a serious

public health hazard that goes with it.


It turns out that we’re all exposed to a form of toxic air pollution —

fine particulate matter — that causes lung cancer, asthma, heart disease  and other 

serious illnesses. The air we breathe contains three times more of this pollution than 

the World Health Organization says is acceptable. Fortunately, it is a problem with a solution if the appropriate, affordable and long-overdue steps are taken.


This month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began moving in

the right direction. On July 7, it added $50 million to a plan to

improve air pollution monitoring in low-income communities of color

all over the country. Activists and residents of areas adjacent to the

nation’s inland hubs and seaports welcomed this news because we

continue to suffer from  deadly diesel fumes and other contaminants

from the freight sector.


These pollution monitors could mean resources to set new guidelines

that would improve air quality. In order to make the data they collect

effective, the residents of the areas affected — in Kansas City and

elsewhere — need to play a central role in determining what pollutants

to measure, where to place the sensors and how to analyze the data

they collect. Up to now, our communities have paid a heavy price for

having been left out of this all-important decision-making.


Overburdened or EJ communities often do not have regulatory air monitors

 Where they do, the instruments are hopelessly outdated. They

cannot detect many of the major contaminants to which residents are

exposed daily. Even where capable monitors are available, state

regulators often prioritize their placement to serve the needs of

industry over local public health concerns.


For these reasons, community organizations such as CleanAirNow, where

I am executive director, began deploying their own air monitors to

track pollution and advocate for much needed reductions in these

harmful impurities. CleanAirNow’s primary scope covers the Kansas City-Overland Park-Kansas City, MO-KS Combined Statistical Area, and Topeka Metropolitan  Areas, as well as Kansas’ Brown County, which includes Sac and Fox and Kickapoo reservations.


In Kansas City, Kansas’ Argentine, Armourdale and Turner neighborhoods

lies one of the nation’s largest freight rail hubs and inland ports in

the Midwest. They’re all in Wyandotte County, which has consistently

ranked near the bottom of Kansas’ 105 counties for health measures

such as life expectancy.


The residents of communities such as Argentine, where windows were

covered daily with black soot, took it upon themselves to monitor the

daily pollution, while officials refused to see the necessity. The

results found high levels of fine particulate matter or PM 2.5 and

black carbon — which are known causes of respiratory illnesses — among

other contaminants. The project found that diesel exhaust air

pollution levels were high enough to send people to the hospital and

cause premature deaths according to our consulting scientist, Mark



Responding to community pressure based on our air monitoring and data

collection, in 2017 the EPA launched its own  KC-Traq Study, the Kansas City

Transportation and Local-Scale Air Quality Study. However, the agency

placed its monitors without guidance from the very people who

initially collected the data. Partnered with the monitoring company

Aeroqual, CleanAirNow now has a network of more than 10 air sensors in

Kansas City that measure PM 2.5 and provide real-time air quality

information. The EPA signed a cooperative agreement to use our

to inform its studies.


When officials wouldn’t take action to make sure our air is

breathable, we equipped ourselves with the knowledge and technical

capacity to do it effectively on our own. While we continue to press

for a central role in measuring air quality, we know that more is

needed. Leadership from the community and organizations such as

CleanAirNow is critical to the success and effectiveness of these

programs to keep everyone safe.


Beto Lugo-Martinez is a Kansas City resident and the executive

director of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit CleanAirNow.https://www.kansascity.com/opinion/readers-opinion/guest-commentary/article253312238.html