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Coloradans with health conditions call on state to do more to clear the air

In dim light, cars with headlights on drive bumper-to-bumper on a multi-lane freeway
Scott Franz
Traffic backs up on Interstate 25 in south Denver on Jan. 31, 2019. Cars and trucks are the top contributor to air pollution on the Front Range. Oil and gas operations are another major contributor.

Editor's note: This is the second story in a three-part series about air pollution in Northern Colorado and the impacts it is having on residents.

One of the first things Milena Pastore does when she wakes up at her home in Windsor is look at her phone to check the air quality.

If the pollution levels are too high, she cancels plans with friends and puts other tasks on hold.

“One of the most important parts of my life that helps me to stay balanced is my ability to get out for walks with my dogs,” she said. "There's a lot of days where I can't do that.”

That’s because Pastore has Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), a health condition where mast cells release too many chemicals into the body. The condition makes her more sensitive to air pollution than the average Coloradan.

“Basically it just means that I've got an overly sensitive system,” she said.

When the air quality index goes from a healthy green to an unhealthy red, the symptoms come on fast. Even driving with the windows down can trigger a reaction.

“I can get disoriented, irritable, anxious and confused,” she said. “I get achy. It just causes like a lot of inflammation in my body, and so on those really bad days, I need to stay inside.”

Pastore said the air quality at her home in Windsor reaches that “stay at home level” about four times a month.

And since Christmas, she said the number of days she’s had to stay inside has been rising.

Cars are the biggest source of ozone pollution along the Front Range, but sometimes Pastore has to do some sleuthing to figure out why the air suddenly reaches unhealthy levels. She blamed a large controlled burn in Wyoming for a flare up of bad air over several days in January.

A green map is dotted with circles in green, yellow and orange with numbers inside each
Scott Franz
A screenshot of an air quality index map shows polluted air centered in Northern Colorado on Feb. 3, 2023. Residents in Larimer County say bad air has concentrated near their homes on multiple occasions this winter.

“We struggle immensely,” she said. “A lot of people have to move away because they need to move somewhere that has fresh air, and cleaner air.”

Jessie Peck is also struggling to find clean air near her home in Boulder. She has a different range of symptoms when air quality deteriorates.

“It just makes my eyes water and my throat feels kind of heavy,” Peck said. “Now it seems like there's rarely ever a day when you cannot look down on the entire Front Range that's visible from Boulder, from the foothills, and look out east, northeast, southeast and just see solid smog and particulate as far as the eye can see."

Peck is an illustrator for children’s books. She said because of air pollution she spends fewer days outside, and that limits her work because her illustrations are inspired by nature.

“It's disheartening,” she said. "I just feel like they could do more. And I don't know, I'm not a politician. I don't know what they could do but I wish they would try to do it at the state and the local level.”

A cloud of smog hangs over Denver in the distance.
Rick Kimpel
CC BY-SA 2.0
The Denver skyline is obscured by smog in a view from the foothills. Experts say the North Front Range region, which includes Denver, has high concentrations of ground-level ozone and smog that could lead to respiratory health issues and heart disease.

Improving the air quality has been a top issue for lawmakers at the state Capitol. Last spring, they passed several initiatives including subsidies for electric bike purchases and free public transit rides.

State Rep. Alex Valdez, D-Denver, said the legislation would help people like Peck and Pastore.

“We are going to prevent asthma,” Valdez said last year as the air quality bills were introduced. “We are going to prevent cancer. We are going to prevent all of the horrible things that come from having air that is polluted.”

But a year later, Pastore and Peck say they encounter more and more residents who can’t find relief. Plus, their quest for clean air faces some headwinds. For starters, there’s geography.

“Our Front Range acts like a little bit of a natural wall,” said Chris Manley, Larimer County’s public health director. “We are somewhat more prone to having air quality issues.”

Manley said some help is on the way. The county is buying new tools to learn where the pollution is coming from.

The project will more than double the number of monitoring stations in the county from two to five by the end of 2025.

“They've got a whole suite of different contaminants that they'll be measuring for with the idea that they're trying to pinpoint more sources and get at ‘where is that source of ozone being contributed from?’”

Larimer County and Colorado State University will also launch a three year study on sources of air pollution in the area with a specific focus on chemicals like Benzene, a cancer-causing chemical released from car exhausts and oil and gas operations.

The stakes are high for residents like Pastore of Windsor. In Larimer County where she lives , air quality was so bad over more than 40 different days last year that it prompted warnings from the public health department.

Pastore, for one, would like to see updated ozone alerts that call out the sources of air pollution to hold the sources of air contamination, like oil and gas operators and industrial sources, accountable.

“It's probably very complex, and then there could be different players,” she said. “But you've got to start somewhere."

For more information about how to stay safe when air quality deteriorates, check out these recommendationsfrom the American Lung Association.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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