Air quality in communities, an environmental justice issue

June 3, 2024
Sign advocating for cleaner air. David L. Ryan - Kunak
Irene Lara-Ibeas, PhD

Reviewed and approved by Research & Development Manager Irene Lara-Ibeas, PhD

Table of contents

No more appeals to moral reasoning only.

The legal path has become increasingly taken by citizen communities to defend the right of people to enjoy a healthy environment. The news often shows us how a basic human right, such as the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment puts those who breach their responsibility to provide it in court.

A Korean baby has even sued the South Korean government over climate inaction. No matter the age of the plaintiff, organised people in communities that are affected or vulnerable to environmental damage are asserting their rights.

That includes six young Portuguese people who are able to bring 32 European countries before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) through legal action to enforce their obligations for the harm they are going to suffer throughout their lives caused by the climate emergency. The historic legal ruling to reduce greenhouse gases by the Grand Chamber of the ECtHRin April 2024, with a landmark binding ruling, in favour of the Swiss Senior Women for Climate Protection who claimed there was insufficient action by member states to limit climate change.

Appealing to environmental justice, through the European community’s initiative to take legal action that demand respect for a healthy environment as a basic human right and the right of future generations, is an open debate with great international repercussions.

This has been the case with the recognition of the Peruvian government’s violation of the rights of the inhabitants of La Oroya, an Andean community considered to be one of the most polluted places on the planet. Pollution from mining activity in the vicinity alters air quality through the emission of metals such as lead, arsenic and cadmium. Its particles are transported through the air and are deposited in high concentrations in open-air spaces such as parks, streets and school playgrounds, with children being the most affected by their ingestion.

“The Inter-American Court’s decision is the strongest and most comprehensive judgment of any regional human rights court to date. Not only does it provide much-needed environmental justice for the people of La Oroya in Peru, but it also sets a vital precedent that will be used by concerned citizens, communities, courts and environmental human rights defenders around the world”. David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment.

Environmental justice is based on the guiding principle that everyone has the right to protection from environmental harm and risks. Each country and region has its own laws and regulations to guarantee citizens a clean and healthy environment. It is conceived as “a social claim, a new paradigm that gives certainty and balance about the distribution of positive or negative environmental implications in a given territory.” (Ramírez S., et al., 2015).

Fraction of deaths and DALYs attributable to the environment globally - Kunak

Fraction of deaths and DALYs attributable to the environment globally

Controlling emissions that affect air quality occupies a prominent place in environmental actions and decisions to achieve equality in human rights. All people should be able to live in a dignified way and enjoy an environment with clean and pure air regardless of socio-economic status, gender, geographical location, age or ethnicity.

Air pollution is a problem that occurs in all communities, both urban and rural, and is driven by a wide range of human activity, including fossil fuel-based transportation and industrial emissions.

To improve air quality in our communities, it is necessary to take measures that reduce the release of pollutants into the air while promoting the right of access to both the open air and clean air.

In many areas, the highest pollution levels are found in urban regions with dense traffic and nearby industrial activities. Controlling air quality in our communities is made affordable by essential tools like air quality sensors. By measuring pollutant levels, we can ensure that the air we breathe is free of harmful substances and safe for our health.

What is an environmental justice community?

A community that demands environmental justice is a part of a society that is united because it believes that enjoying a clean environment is essential. Communities therefore claim a human right based on the legal measures in force. This is the way to guarantee a healthy environment that has clean air for all its members.

The rallying of people to protect their rights promotes active citizen participation by becoming involved in decision-making related to the environment and its protection.

“Environmental justice embraces the principle that all communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental and public health laws and regulations.” Robert D. Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice

Therefore, the fight for environmental justice against air pollution aims to prevent the harmful effects on public health from an increasingly hostile environmental and climatic setting.

Of all environmental aspects, the air is a priority resource for life and therefore must remain free of pollutants so as not to create a harmful environment that could affect the health of people and the planet.

Communities demanding environmental justice deserve a voice, being directly affected by pollution. This will help drive the adoption of measures to cut emissions, offset past damage, and eliminate proven sources of environmental harm, like fossil fuels.

Infographic of the Escazú agreement - Kunak

Infographic of the Escazú Agreement

One of the major advances in the full and effective implementation of environmental justice was achieved in Latin America and the Caribbean through the signing of the Escazú Agreement in April 2021. This landmark legal agreement implementation by 25 signatory countries before the Secretary General of the United Nations, promotes the full access of communities to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making processes and access to justice in environmental matters.

What is pollution like in communities?

Community initiatives calling for environmental justice can face numerous sources of damage and challenges that threaten a development model that respects environmental rights, because changes of these rights directly or indirectly affect their health and quality of life. 

Due to damage to water and soil, the disruption of ecosystem services to society or the degradation of air quality, applicants can promote public participation to ensure that environmental justice is exercised and thereby respects the right to health of any person.

This formally requires that all persons be treated equally and benefit from the application of existing laws as protection against possible environmental risks.

Defending human rights through environmental justice demanded by communities is necessary if we want to have clean water, healthy food, clean air and a preserved biosphere that guarantees the services that ecosystems provide to society.

It is about using the legal framework at national and international levels to demand a healthy environment in a globalised world.

Given the serious adverse health effects associated with many pollutants and the unequal distribution of these effects among socio-economic groups, air pollution is often a focus of environmental justice research. (Gardner-Frolick, R., et al., 2022).

Industrial activity and air quality - Kunak

Industrial activity and air quality

Where does this pollution occur?

Among the main causes of environmental harm that threaten sustainable community development are those that affect air quality. This is a global challenge that is caused principally by human activities:

Transport and industry

Through the use of fossil fuels that emits polluting gases. Their release comes mainly from the operation of internal combustion vehicles and from industries that use fossil fuels in their manufacturing processes. The main pollutant emissions from combustion include:

Carbon Dioxide

Nitrogen Dioxide

Sulphur Dioxide

Carbon Monoxide

Particulate Matter

Nitrogen Oxides

Tropospheric Ozone

Hydrocarbons

Heavy Metals

Noise

One of the main factors that prevent a healthy and sustainable environment is the annoying sounds that affect people and their everyday lives. These are noise emissions that cause noise pollution, which the World Health Organization defines as noise of 65 dB and above.

Rubbish and waste

More than 40% of the rubbish and waste generated by human activities is disposed of by burning outdoors.

Agriculture and livestock

24% of greenhouse gases come from the use of artificial fertilisers and the burning of agricultural waste. Livestock is one of the main emitters of methane gas and with it the increase of tropospheric ozone and pollutes the air that remains at ground level.

Forest fires

When the wood of the trees is burned, a harmful mixture of gases and fine particles is produced that affect vital organs such as the kidney and liver and causes respiratory diseases and aggravates cardio-vascular related diseases.

The effects of pollution on communities

While people with lower socio-economic levels and linked to ethnic diversity are the most affected by the adverse effects of air pollution, it ends up being a problem for society as a whole. Health problems and the decline in well-being caused by air pollution are in addition to the fact that pollution alters habitats and damages ecosystems, as well as playing a part in global climate change problems.

By using environmental justice, people fight for these air quality problems to be addressed and, together, achieve objectives to improve public health and the health of living beings in general.

In 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order demanding that 40% of the profits from federal climate and clean energy investments go to environmental justice communities.

Environmental inequalities related to air quality are detected mainly in certain metropolitan areas where the inhabitants are more exposed to air pollution. This is where responsible authorities have regulatory tools, the implementation of which needs to be improved to achieve environmental justice. (Rose-Pérez, R., 2015). In addition, the lack of outdoor spaces in cities and the shortage of rainfall affect the accumulation of pollutants in the air, resulting in poor air quality for urban residents.

Global concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) - WHO - Kunak

Global concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – WHO

According to a study by the World Bank, fine particles from fossil fuel combustion cause one of the most harmful effects of air pollution by increasing the proportion of total suspended particles (TSP). They cause respiratory diseases such as asthma, while being involved in the development of cancer, cardio-vascular diseases and increasing premature deaths

“Shifting away from fossil fuels could prevent 1.2 million deaths a year resulting from exposure to fossil fuel-derived ambient particulate matter.” United Nations, Climate Action.

The government’s role

Environmental justice is based on the guiding principle that everyone has the right to protection against environmental harm and risks. Each country and region has its own laws and agreements to guarantee citizens a cleaner and healthier environment.

In more than 100 countries, the right to a healthy environment enjoys constitutional status, which is the most efficient system of legal protection available.

Across Europe, citizens concerned about environmental damage have safeguards in place. These make it easier to access information, environmental impact assessments, and participate in decision-making processes. If they cannot make their voice heard, they can use the specific rules of each Member State to enforce their rights. An appeal procedure can be initiated either individually or by communities of affected people before a court of the Member State itself.

Non-governmental organisations involved in environmental protection also enjoy preferential status when lodging an appeal for harmful environmental action. They play a primary role for citizens and for the protection of the environment by being considered as defenders of environmental protection.

In the field of environmental justice countries such as the United States stand out because of their historical recognition that all communities should be protected equally against environmental hazards. Subsequently it has created a commitment to environmental justice through the Justice40 initiative using a climate and economic justice screening tool.

Environmental and Climatic Justice Evaluation Tool - EE.UU. Government geoplatform - kunak

Environmental and Climatic Justice Evaluation Tool – EE.UU. Government geoplatform vinculated to the Justice 40 Initiative

Ensuring air quality is a key factor in achieving environmental justice that protects human health, biodiversity and environmental sustainability.

Governments, through enacted regulations and policies, such as the recently approved European Air Quality Directive, can significantly influence the quality of the air we breathe. They have a responsibility to establish and enforce regulations that limit the amount of pollutants that can be released into the air.

These standards are essential for keeping the air clean and reducing air pollution levels. However, these rules can only be effective if they are consistently applied and strictly enforced.

role-goverment-ensuring-environmental-justice-kunak

Role of goverments for ensuring environmental justice

Public awareness of the importance of breathing clean air must also be promoted by governments. Through education and awareness campaigns, they can help people understand the risks associated with breathing polluted air and the measures they can take to protect themselves.

When it comes to areas with higher pollution, national governments have a responsibility to take more drastic actions to improve air quality. This could include limiting certain activities that contribute to such high pollution, such as burning coal or restricting the operation of factories that produce high levels of emissions that negatively impact air quality.

Children demand climate justice - Kunak

Youth demanding climate justice

How can you improve air quality in your community?

Air quality in communities is an issue that affects the general public and for which we are all responsible. It is important to take action in a collective effort to reduce air pollution and promote cleaner, healthier air for all.

Whether through public policies, community initiatives demanding environmental justice or changes in our behaviour, we can all make a difference in the air quality in our neighbourhoods. After all, clean air is something we all deserve.

To improve air quality in our communities, it is necessary to adopt a series of measures that promote the care and preservation of our environment.

Environmental education

It is essential to promote environmental education among community members. Knowing the causes and consequences of air pollution will allow us to make more informed and environmentally conscious decisions.

Renewable energies

Promote the use of renewable energies as a substitute for fossil fuels. Generating energy through renewable sources such as the sun or wind, significantly reduces the emission of polluting gases into the air. The energy efficiency of buildings also contributes to the optimisation of the energy demand of communities and thereby to minimise the impact of the energy generation industry.

Green spaces

Maintaining and creating green spaces and outdoor leisure areas in our communities is also essential. Trees and plants in parks and gardens absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen and regulate the ambient temperature, generally contributing to air purification.

Public awareness

Implement public awareness programmes on the impact that our daily activities have on air quality, such as regulating the use of heating and air conditioning systems to reduce polluting emissions.

Sustainable mobility

Promoting the use of public transport and more environmentally friendly modes of transport and the creation of pedestrian areas help to reduce the environmental impact of our journeys.

Tools to monitor air quality

We must work on improving air quality through the use of renewable energy, promoting public transport and encouraging sustainable lifestyles.

Today, we also have different tools that allow us to monitor air quality in our communities to achieve healthier and more sustainable communities. Their use is key to understanding the air we breathe, ensuring it is free of harmful pollutants and safe for our health.

One key tool is air quality sensors. While there are lots of technologies for measuring air pollution, their reliability varies. The choice depends on the specific pollutants you want to track, with options such as electrochemical and non-dispersive infrared sensors, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).

Kunak’s patented smart cartridge technology offers the advantage of being easily replaced in a matter of minutes, drastically reducing the loss of air quality data. In addition, there is no need to send the device back to the factory for calibration and/or periodic maintenance.

Unlike other systems, Kunak’s smart cartridges incorporate a built-in algorithm designed by Kunak engineers to mitigate the effects of environmental conditions, enabling measurements similar to those offered by reference instruments.

Just by making informed decisions based on accurate and quality data, it is possible to take the appropriate measures that help us to reduce environmental pollution and ultimately to protect people’s health.

“Environmental justice is helping to reveal the interaction between environmental threats, health conditions and vulnerable groups.” (Prieto-Flores, M.E., et al., 2016).

Other ways to find out the quality of the air you breathe

There are different public tools available to understand air quality in the community. For example, smart maps with data from meteorological stations and sensor networks provide air quality data for certain areas. These tools are usually provided by local governments and public administrations.

Additionally, it is important to be aware of news and alerts from local authorities about air pollution levels. These alerts allow early decisions to be made to avoid health risks when staying outdoors on certain days when air pollution is high (e.g. when going out for sport).

Sign advocating for cleaner air. (Photo by David L. Ryan via Getty Images) - Kunak

Sign advocating for cleaner air. (Photo by David L. Ryan)

Similarly, communities play an essential and dynamic role, through environmental justice, to hold governments accountable to citizens.

The political class is the guarantor for citizens that their fundamental right to breathe clean air is not violated

If governments fail to do their job – by either neglecting their own duties or not holding others accountable for air quality – it’s time for environmental justice action. This legal route has a strong track record of forcing governments to follow the laws and policies designed for a healthy environment. After all, clean air is a fundamental right.

References

Gallagher Ciaran L. and Holloway Tracey. (2022). U.S. decarbonization impacts on air quality and environmental justice. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 17, Number 11. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ac99ef/meta

Rose Pérez, Richelle. (2015). Justicia medioambiental y calidad del aire en Santiago de Chile. Rev. salud pública. 17 (3): 337-350, 2015. https://revistas.unal.edu.co/index.php/revsaludpublica/article/view/38465

Gardner-Frolick, Rivkah, David Boyd and Amanda Giang. (2022). Selecting Data Analytic and Modeling Methods to Support Air Pollution and Environmental Justice Investigations: A Critical Review and Guidance Framework. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 5, 2843–2860. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.1c01739

Ramírez, S., et al., (2015). Environmental justice. Between utopia and social reality. https://www.scielo.org.mx/scielo.php?pid=S1870-11912015000100008&script=sci_abstract&tlng=en

Prieto-Flores, M.E., et al., (2016). Air pollution, cardiovascular mortality and vulnerable groups in Madrid: An exploratory study from an environmental justice perspective. https://revistes.ub.edu/index.php/ScriptaNova/article/view/18008/20722