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Colorado health equity commissioner wants to address communities with existing air quality issues

"Low-income communities are living in the frontlines of environmental injustice and pollution," said Hilda Nucete.

DENVER — Hilda Nucete is one of seven new members appointed to the Health Equity Commission at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). 

She was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, where her father worked at an oil and gas plant. Nucete was only 3 years old when she developed asthma and believes it was due to the high pollution rates in the oil camp she grew up in.

"Everybody I knew had some sort of respiratory issues – some sort of cardiovascular issues a lot of the times that are related to pollution," she said. "I think that as a health equity commissioner, it is my role to bring the voices of community members to the table and make it easier for them to bring their own voices."

Nucete and her family eventually moved to Caracas, Venezuela, and her asthma did not give her many problems there for a while. 

When Nucete was 15 years old, she moved to the United States with her family and experienced more breathing issues. 

"My asthma started back up in Colorado, one of the places that you’ll think [has] the crispiest air out there," she said.

Growing up, Nucete said she began to realize that some communities were more affected by poor quality than others. 

"Communities of color – low-income communities are living in the frontlines of environmental injustice and pollution are used these kind of bad haze days," she said. "Why is Commerce City – why is Elyria-Swansea more polluted than all these other neighborhoods, like Highlands Ranch?" 

RELATED: Smoke increases patient visits for respiratory issues in Colorado Springs and Denver

Nucete knows first hand that long-term exposure to pollution can lead to health issues, which can then contribute to health disparities for low-income communities. She says the poor air quality Coloradans have been living with for weeks now, has impacted areas near highways and industrial facilities for years. 

"They’re living in a neighborhood that’s more polluted, so they have to deal with all the different ramifications of the pollution in that neighborhood," Nucete said. 

She recalls when her mother, then a widow, had a difficult time addressing Nucete's health needs when her asthma would flare up. 

"She had to figure out with work what to do," Nucete said. "She had to figure out if she was gonna take a day off – if she was gonna have to get childcare – whatever it was. So she had to really figure out how to be able to provide for her family, while at the same time, her daughter was having asthma attacks and having to go to the doctor."

Nucete said the inability to take time off of work, and fear of consequences from employers, remains a barrier for low-income communities.

Credit: KUSA
"You can see kind of how naïve we were just playing in front of the lake where oil is being extracted," said Hilda.

Having a front row seat to the health disparities linked to pollution motivated her to advocate for better air quality, and she now serves as the Director of Civic Engagement for the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund

"I try to create pathways for individuals to make it easier for them to register to vote, to be civically active, to participate in any means," she said. 

Nucete plans to work toward getting a clearer picture of the issues low-income and communities of color face due to poor air quality. 

"A lot of the health disparities, especially in low wealth and communities of color are because of the lack of data access or the lack of pursuit for data," she said. "Something that I’m really excited for is that the commission can really call out for different health disparity analysis' and different health disparity studies in different communities." 

She said she believes the first step in better serving communities impacted by pollution is ensuring they are educated on the health issues that could have a direct correlation to the air they breathe. 

"Knowledge is power, knowledge gives you the tools to fight for your people, for your family."  

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