COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — Commerce City residents have been concerned about the air quality in their community for years. Residential neighborhoods are surrounded by highways and refineries, which contribute to high levels of fine particle pollution.
For some community members, their environmental surroundings can overwhelmingly dictate their lives.
Lucy Molina, for example, had lived in the area her entire life. She can't remember a time when she or her family did not have to fill up jugs of filtered or purified water to use for cooking.
"And we always have bottled water to drink," she said. "If a third grader can understand that drinking that water makes them sick, then anybody can understand."
Molina is a single mom of two and said she has to have a filter for their shower/bath water because her son has eczema. She said her son's skin would get irritated without using the filtered water.
"I also have bloody noses, I also get migraines, I also have asthma, it’s normal, but it shouldn’t be normal," Molina said.
Molina lost her grandmother to leukemia in 2018 and believes environmental factors played a role in her illness.
When speaking to her neighbors, Molina said it's very common to find that her family isn't the only with health issues she thinks are related to the environment they live in.
"Unfortunately I feel like that might be our future too, it might be our future, cancer, leukemia, my cousin is fighting lupus, my aunt right now, second time fighting breast cancer."
According to findings from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), children in the area are at high risk for lead poisoning. State data also reports that people in Commerce City and North Denver have more serious breathing problems than the rest of the state.
While rates of adults with asthma are similar to the rest of the state, residents in the area go to the emergency room for asthma much. According to CDPHE, this could be because of higher levels of pollution, differences in residents' asthma severity, or less access to routine health care.
Molina is one of many community members in Commerce City advocating for environmental justice. Unfortunately, she said, Molina thinks her community is often left behind in the eyes of government agencies and elected officials.
"We're worth it, our kids are worth it," she said. "It’s not just a Commerce City problem. Denver, Globeville, Swansea, we’re all, we’re in the middle in between highways, Suncor."
In August 2021, CDPHE released results from the first round of air quality monitoring in the areas of Commerce City and North Denver. The report found levels of fine particle pollution were higher in the area compared to other places in Denver and around the state.
The report found sources of that pollution came from the Suncor Refinery, cars, and more distant sources like wildfire smoke.
Volatile organic compounds did not reach levels where experts would expect health impacts. However, it was not clear how those compounds may interact with other pollutants to cause impacts.
Dr. Anthony Gerber is a pulmonologist with National Jewish Health and Director of Pulmonary Research. He is also part of the state's Air Quality Control Commission.
Gerber explained that aside from looking at the physical impacts of pollution, it's important to also acknowledge psychological effects.
"There’s that psychological factor of you know my community is left behind and that creates stress and other impacts which can negatively impact your health," he said. "The psychological burden of seeing clouds, whether the clouds are toxic, just the idea that there’s this activity, this industrial activity in my neighborhood, but it’s not in someone else’s neighborhood, I think that’s an impact that we have to view as real."
In other words, the simple act of seeing that you are surrounded by potential hazardous chemicals, or smelling something you believe is toxic has real impacts.
"Whether or not the smell is actually accurately assessing the risk, our mind is programmed to think about it as a risk," said Gerber.
9NEWS reached out to CDPHE to confirm the number of active air monitors in the area and learn if other measures are being taken to address the concerns of the community. As of the publishing time of this article, we had not received a response.