Industrial Air Pollution (image: Shutterstock)

Air Pollution. Climate change. Environmental hazards. These words float around the internet, news feeds, and fill the air waves from time-to-time, but most often tends to be forgotten or takes a backseat in issues when the day is done. This is especially the case in environmental justice neighborhoods. Is it because it’s an issue that has been talked to death? Or is it all politics? Either way air issues and hazards cannot be continue to be ignored.

Just recently the World Health Organization’s cancer research division, the International Agency for Research on Cancer announced that air pollution–emissions from industrial facilities, vehicle exhaust, and wood-biomass  burning are associated or linked to some cancers. This announcement by the WHO is landmark in that it is the first time that outdoor air pollution has been deemed a carcinogen (Click here to read the full report. **note: must first download epub reader). This report is a strong nudge for environmental health organizations such as Clean Air Council and communities that are impacted by environmental hazards to take action and translate that into effective policies, strategies, and stronger environmental oversight.

Clean Air Council has expanded its Environmental Justice Program in Philadelphia from  Port Richmond into much of Philadelphia’s Delaware RiverWards communities including Bridesburg and Kensignton. The program is now moving towards organizing and education in the RiverWards communities about the environmental hazards and air quality issues in area, and to build effective policy recommendations to take to their community leaders and elected officials. We will begin environmental hazards workshops and policy workshops starting in November 2013.

(Port Richmond erased from satellite imagery. A blank spot on the map.)

Do we know what is in the air we actually breathe? Do we know what we are actually drawing in to our lungs? Or, moreover, do we have a clear understanding of air quality and regulations from some of Philadelphia’s heaviest polluters? The answer is no, not really. Air monitoring in Philadelphia is done by about 10 air monitoring stations scattered throughout the city, measuring pollutants such as NOX, ozone, and particulate matter. If you aren’t lucky enough to live next to one of these sensors, we probably don’t have a very good understanding of the air quality around your home.

So, we don’t actually know what the air is like in much of the city. We don’t know what air quality is like around our international ports, and we certainly don’t know what it is like in neighborhoods we already know are burdened with the most environmental hazards in the city. Reports like the Air Quality Index, which can be found on, give us a good idea of the general quality of air in the region. They inform the decisions that are made about regional air quality improvement plans and even supply the data for Philadelphia’s air quality action days.

These numbers, though, are very general. What if every day of the week was an air quality action day in, say, Port Richmond? We would have absolutely no idea, despite the fact that this neighborhood is directly adjacent to at least two major air pollution sources: I-95 and the Tioga Port. The limited data we have for this neighborhood doesn’t let us know what residents are actually being exposed to. Traffic is a huge contributor to both ozone and particulate matter in cities, but we don’t have air monitoring stations strategically place in some of our most heavily trafficked neighborhoods. The city’s air pollution emanates outward from such sources: they are the dynamos that churn fuel into dust. This means that, at the very least, neighborhoods like Port Richmond probably bear some of the highest and most regular levels of pollution in the city. Though, we don’t know this yet for sure.

But someone must be regulating this, right? The answer here is much less clear. In the City of Philadelphia, Air Management Services is charged with enforcing air quality regulations and, at the state level, the Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for the same. But mobile source pollutions are only regulated by individual vehicle: when your vehicle was built and where it is licensed determine quite a bit about how dirty it is allowed to be. It is the same for heavy-duty goods movement vehicles, such as the trucks coming in and out of the ports. This means that we regulate the amount of pollution that comes out of vehicles, but not the places they release emissions. Mobile-source pollution is understood and regulated at a state or regional scale despite air pollution functioning additionally at the local scale, and even at the scale of our own bodies.

This is a problem. We cannot regulate something we do not know anything about. If we don’t know how dirty the air is in a particular place, we can’t say how clean it is supposed to be. Right now, we can make statements like this for the whole of Philadelphia, but are entirely ill-equipped to say this about a particularly overburdened neighborhood near our northern port. It is a zone of exception that evades a concern for highly concentrated carcinogenic infrastructures by sitting at the periphery of the environmental health regulatory framework. In terms of air quality data and regulation this makes our northern port and adjacent neighborhoods a blank spot on the map.