What It's Like to Live in One of the Most Polluted Places in California

Monica Pasillas applies eye shadow to her daughter Maritza’s eyelids. Maritza has cerebral palsy, and she often gets migraines on bad air days. The family lives in Imperial County, which has some of the worst air quality in the state. (Elizabeth Aguilera for CALmatters)

Juan Pasillas is trying to be stealthy. Roving around a quiet city, wearing a mask, looking around corners while on the lookout for mutants, changed by an airborne infection.

Pasillas’ avatar in the video game “Last of Us” moves quickly, wary of any movement. It could be someone whose brain has been taken over by the fungus and whose body is mutating.

The Imperial County teenager finds some irony in his game choice. Stuck indoors whenever he is not at school or at work, Pasillas, 18, actively avoids the polluted air in his community that caused asthma attacks so bad they sent him to the hospital several times as a kid.

The Pasillas family lives in the county with some of the worst air quality in the state.

Imperial County does not meet federal air quality standards, and state officials are working on plans to begin to decrease pollution. Only two other places in California have the same distinction: the San Joaquin Valley and the South Coast Air Basin, which includes most of Los Angeles County

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The rural border county is overburdened by agricultural burning, the nearby drying Salton Sea, and emissions from factories in its border neighbor Mexicali. It’s so bad children in the county are hospitalized and visit the emergency room more often for asthma than anywhere else in California.

This is not quite anyone’s vision of the California dream, popularly imagined as variations based on building a safe, secure and successful life. Many people arrived in Imperial County to mine their version of the dream through farming or factory work, in a rural, affordable area, that is also close to family or friends in the U.S. and just over the border in Mexico.

Instead, Imperial is emblematic of life for millions of people around the state who live under an umbrella of bad air quality or who have contaminated soil or lack access to clean water. The majority of these environmental hot spots in California are concentrated in low-income communities of color, and there is often little attention paid to improving the situation, said David Pettit, senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council.

“Everybody wants the same thing for their kids: a good education, a healthy place to live and clean air and water,” said Pettit. “For a lot of people it’s difficult to figure out how to do that. Families should not have to worry that if their kids go outside and play baseball or soccer…they might get sick.”

Imperial got an F in high ozone and particle pollution from the American Lung Association. The city of El Centro, the county seat, is ranked seventh worst city among 187 areas for particle pollution across the country, according to the lung association’s report.

These tiny invaders can embed in the lungs, enter the bloodstream and are known to cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses, including lung cancer.

Residents regularly deal with a brown haze that causes their eyes to burn as smoke climbs into the air from factories and agricultural burning. In addition, toxic dust from the shrinking Salton Sea, which has been used for farm runoff for decades, permeates the air. Gasoline vapors rise from millions of idling cars and diesel trucks at the border each year. Across the border more than 180 maquiladoras, or manufacturing facilities, contribute to the bad air quality.

Officials have done little to address the worsening air over the years but things are changing on that front, spurred by the work of Luis Olmedo and the social justice organization he runs, Comite Civico del Valle, which works on health and air issues.

In 2013, Comite Civico received $2 million in funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It partnered with the California Environmental Health Tracking Program and the University of Washington to set up 40 air monitors around the region to capture real-time data about air quality levels. The network, IVAN Air Monitoring, or Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods, uses monitors placed in the region from the Salton Sea to across the border in Mexicali.

Juan Pasillas, 18, spends a lot of his free time indoors playing video games like Last of Us. He has asthma and has to avoid being outdoors in the polluted air. (Elizabeth Aguilera for CALmatters)

Olmedo said the organization wanted to measure air quality in the areas where people actually live and not just rely on the few government monitors that are in the area. The state only had six monitors in the county before the IVAN network.

“We are giving the public a resource. We communicate the data in real time, so people can register and get alerts whenever the levels are high,” Olmedo said.

Air quality in Imperial County has been so bad that it has been labeled a non-attainment area under the federal Clean Air Act in 2014, said Michael Benjamin, chief of air quality planning and science division for the California Air Resources Board. That means it does not meet the standards set under the law.

“We’re very cognizant of the fact that the residents of Imperial County are breathing unhealthy levels of air pollution. So we have a very robust set of actions to try to work with the agencies on both sides of the border as well as community groups to address and mitigate those sources of pollution,” said Benjamin.

The agency adopted a plan last spring as framework for decreasing air pollution in the area over the next decade. It’s also working with Mexico to decrease pollution from its factories and unpaved roads as well as considering more regular smog check requirements and stricter rules for agricultural burning.

But for now, residents cope with the dangers by signing up for ozone and air alerts, keeping their children indoors and minimizing their use of fireplaces or other contributors to bad air quality.

The Imperial Valley has one of California’s highest rates of childhood asthma hospitalization and emergency room visits, double that of the state, according to the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development. In Imperial County the prevalence of asthma is 15.1 percent, higher than the state average, according to state data. It is also one of the state’s poorest counties.

Pasillas is one of those stats. He recalled going to the hospital several times throughout middle and high school after suffering terrible asthma attacks. They usually happened after he was outside during physical education class.

“You feel dizzy, everything starts getting like dark, the lights dim, the voices echo all around, you see everything in slow motion. When it’s really bad you can’t breathe, your heart feels like it’s going to pound out of your chest, your fingertips get really cold, you sweat a lot and your nails start getting really purple,” Pasillas said. “If you want to feel an asthma attack go under water and try to breathe, your inside burns.”

Back then a doctor told Pasillas’ parents that the best thing for him would be for the family to move away, said Monica Pasillas, his mother.

“We thought, do we go to San Diego? But it’s very expensive there,” said Monica Pasillas, whose husband delivers furniture for a local retailer. “It wouldn’t work. We couldn’t make ends meet.”

Pettit called the suggestion “wildly unrealistic.”

“For people working for a living and struggling to make ends meet, they are not going anywhere,” he said. “People don’t get that, especially if you are coming from a place of white economic privilege. It’s unrealistic—it’s not the way most of California works.”

Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, an Imperial Valley Democrat, said the solution is to fix the problem.

“In the southern parts of California, particularly in my district, there’s a tremendous amount of room to grow,” Garcia said. “That’s why sustainable environmentally sound policies in our land use development, in our transportation systems,are extremely important to try to prevent these types of circumstances from continuing.”

Comite’s monitors, many of them at schools, have already shown increased air pollution and found higher levels of small particulate levels that was previously known. Now the information is being used to create strategies to decrease the pollution through efforts at the state level and with Mexico.

Those efforts, and new laws, have spurred actions by the state air board to set goals for the region, sometime in the 2030s and invest resources in trying to improve the situation.

“It’s frustrating sometimes that it takes a while to get things up and going,” Garcia said. But he added, “It’s certainly very refreshing and gives us a tremendous amount of hope that we’re moving in the right direction.”

In the fall the board launched the Community Air Protection Program to help improve air quality in some of the most impacted areas of the state, including part of Imperial County.

“We found that Imperial County would attain the 2.5 standard if it were not for the contribution of emissions from Mexico,” said Benjamin from the air board. “Imperial County is more challenging because of Mexico and the impact from Mexico and our limited authority and the nature of the desert environment.”

Now Mexicali is putting up 50 air monitors, borrowed from the state, and has already taken action to ban fireworks and pave roads.

For Monica Pasillas and her family, who live in a double-wide home across from agricultural fields, the improvements can’t come soon enough. She lost her left eye to a bacterial infection last year after a day in the garden. Doctors, she said, blamed the contaminated air.

“You think about a rosy future for your children, that nothing is going to happen to them,” she said. “We spent nearly three years with Juan going to the doctors when he should have been playing outside. He couldn’t do that. He didn’t have a normal childhood.”

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.

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