Pollution not so gone with the wind
Chasing the wind is exactly what this group of environmentalists is doing. Chasing, bagging and analyzing.
Nearly two dozen concerned citizens from Escambia and Santa Rosa counties learned how to bag air samples to be tested for pollutants at a community strategy and training session this week.
The group worries that chemicals produced by companies like International Paper, Gulf Power and area landfills spark respiratory and other health problems for people in the surrounding communities.
"That stuff doesn't just smell bad," says Denny Larson, director for San Francisco-based Global Community Monitor, an environmental justice and human rights non-profit group.
Larson trains amateur environmentalists to collect air samples in their communities worldwide for pollution testing. Samplers are called the Bucket Brigade after the 5-gallon buckets that house the artificial lung that captures air samples.
Larson and Francine Ishmael, who is Citizens Against Toxic Exposure executive director and on the Bay Area Safe Air Coalition steering committee, took a sample from a parking lot across from the International Paper in February. The results were scary, but just what was expected, she says.
That sample showed 15 times the Environmental Protection Agency's acceptable standard of hydrogen sulfide, a gas that causes eye, nose and throat irritation and difficulty in breathing for asthmatics. In concentrated quantities, the gas can cause loss of consciousness, headaches, poor attention span, bad memory and slow motor function.
The sample also showed 40 times the acceptable levels of methyl mercaptan, which causes lung and liver irritation, and in high doses leads to coma and death.
"When you go out to those neighborhoods, look around," Ishmael says. "There's nothing green, there's nothing growing, but some of those people living out there don't think it's bothering them."
Another air sample showed an additional gas with similar bad health effects.
Carolyn Kolb and her husband, Bill, learned monitoring and sampling techniques at the meeting so they can take samples of the Coyote Land Fill near their home in Navarre.
"We have people out there who are very sick," Carolyn says. "The more you get involved, the more you see the [factory] owners just aren't really concerned about the neighborhood."
The Kolbs say people within a few miles of their home recently began talking about how sick they are getting. The neighbors formed the Holley Action Group in response to the illnesses, and the Kolbs got involved in the fight for their neighbors, some who can't afford to move or who have lived on the same land for several generations.
It's worth the time and effort because "when it gets in the air," Kolb says, "it bothers all of us."
Concerned citizens and neighborhood action groups like these are exactly the type of people needed for the Bucket Brigade.
"We're enlisting the public's help to become part of this coalition so that we can be a force in numbers to combat this," Ishmael says. "It's going to take more than one person saying there's a problem, and it's going to take more than one person to get something done."
The group's goals are simple. They want to train as many people as possible to take documented air samples. After the samples are analyzed by Columbia Analytical Services in California, they'll take the results to local officials so that they'll have the data they need to prompt local industries into action, such as lowering emissions and becoming better neighbors to the communities around them.
Larson says the group is prepared for opposition from the polluters, and it's willing to share the workload.
The environmental activists ask that the companies do the same testing, identify the source of the chemicals and deal with the problem.
Ishmael points out that they don't want the companies to go out of business because they bring needed money and jobs to the area. But what they do want is better regulations that will keep the community healthier.
The Safe Air Coalition's goal is to start a Good Neighbor Campaign, where the two sides reach a mutually beneficial resolution, and legal action would only come as a last result.
People who care about the wetlands, the everglades and endangered species have an opportunity to directly affect an environmental tragedy that's right in the heart of their own community, Ishmael says, and she encourages locals to get involved.
"When we say that this area is environmentally friendly, we want to say it and mean it," she says. "Everybody that is breathing air can be affected by this, and that includes every citizen of this community."
How to Get Involved
Call the Citizens Against Toxic Exposure office at 478-5799.
Attend the Bay Area Safe Air Coalition meetings on the second Thursday of each month at the New Hope Missionary Baptist Church Annex on 10 E. Pearl St. November's meeting is 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9. Bucket Brigade training is available.
Get trained, take air samples and join the monitoring team.