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Some West Dallas residents are at higher risk of exposure to harmful air pollutants, report finds

Janie Cisneros talks about the need to take action against air polluters in the Singleton corridors during a community meeting Thursday, June 20, 2024, in West Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
Janie Cisneros talks about the need to take action against air polluters in the Singleton corridors during a community meeting Thursday, June 20, 2024, in West Dallas.

Residents living along the Singleton Corridor in West Dallas — including some who are near a decades-old shingle factory — appear to have a higher exposure to harmful air pollution and increased risks of respiratory illness. Those are among the findings in a new health study.

The study also shows that most respondents to a survey included in the study say they believe the air is being polluted by nearby industry — and that they intentionally avoid outdoor activities and opening their windows due to fear of toxic air.

Community members have long complained that heavy industry surrounding their neighborhood has been harming their health. That includes the rail line running along the corridor, batch plants — and the GAF shingle factory.

They say the new data reinforces what they’ve known all a long.

According to the study by Texas A&M University researchers, West Dallas residents are exposed to particulate matter (PM) "as great as eleven times the average for Dallas County." The report also says residents in that community also suffer four to five times as much asthma compared to the region overall.

The survey area includes the GAF shingle plant — and the communities that live near it.

The West Dallas community group, Singleton United/Unidos has been fighting for years to see the facility shut down. Some residents have said the plant’s emissions are causing harmful medical consequences for them — and their families.

“The longer it stays in our community, the sicker that we are going to become,” Janie Cisneros, leader of Singleton United/Unidos told KERA. “These numbers are not going to get any healthier as long as GAF is operating.”

The study looked at health risks to residents in the area, air pollution levels and resident’s perceptions of where the pollution might be coming from.

KERA reached out to GAF for comment about the survey and some if its key conclusions.

"GAF has not had an opportunity to review the information shared tonight, but we take this opportunity to reiterate the fact that GAF is a good operator and has complied with the terms of its air permits," a GAF spokesperson told KERA in an email.

"GAF has been inspected numerous times by various agencies...in recent years and there have been no notices of violation issued."

The data comes at a time when community leaders say multiple avenues to shut down the plant have been blocked. That includes state legislation that changes how a city goes about closing down certain businesses — and what they might owe operators in the process.

Some West Dallas residents have also said they feel a lack of support from City Hall — and their council members. Cisneros says she hopes the new study will be taken seriously by her representative.

“People…willingly opened their doors to tell us what is going on in their households. Why would they do that? Because they want elected officials to pay attention,” Cisneros said.

Community perceptions

From July to December 2023, Texas A&M University researchers collected responses from West Dallas residents to a health survey in both English and Spanish.

Certified volunteers canvased the study area — on the North, East and West sides of the GAF facility — to help distribute the survey to residents.

It covered how residents perceived air pollution — and asked them to include self-reported symptoms of respiratory illnesses.

Nearly 40% of residents in the study area participated in the survey, according to the research team.

Just over 40% of survey respondents reported they lived in West Dallas for more than 15 years. Over half of respondents reported they had never smoked.

“In terms of perceptions, 60% said that air quality is poor or very poor in our area,” Cisneros said. “84% said air pollution ‘makes me and my family sick’.”

Cisneros also said most respondents believed the pollution was coming from nearby heavy industrial sites. Those include from smokestacks, high levels of traffic and “exposure to pollution from trains.”

And 61% of respondents reported they “avoid experiencing outdoors and open their windows” because of concern about air pollution.

“We know where we live and we are afraid to enjoy where we live,” Cisneros said.

Residents listen to Dr. Natalie Johnson with Texas A&M discuss the findings of the health study in the Singleton corridor during a community meeting Thursday, June 20, 2024, in West Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
Residents listen to Dr. Natalie Johnson with Texas A&M discuss the findings of the health study in the Singleton corridor during a community meeting Thursday, June 20, 2024, in West Dallas.

And there's another issue.

"Nearly a quarter of respondents said they...were victims of childhood lead poisoning," Roberts told West Dallas community members during a meeting held on Thursday evening.

"What do you think people exposed to lead poisoning are now dealing with, with poor and failing air quality?"

Exceeding federal standards

At the same time, the team placed an air pollution monitor in the Singleton Corridor to measure daily averages of particulate matter (PM)

Only some PM pollution is currently regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But there are different sizes.

“PM10 is a larger form of particulate matter that you see coming from a lot of these types of polluters,” Caleb Roberts, executive director of Downwinders at Risk, told KERA. “Its larger than what is PM2.5, which is a smaller molecule.”

Roberts said PM10 is easier for the human body to get rid of – and that’s why his group, a nearly 30-year-old organization focusing on environmental justice in the region, is trying to highlight the other kind of PM.

“PM2.5…is hard for your body to get rid of, so it goes into every organ of your body,” Roberts said. “So this is something your body does not have a good way of getting rid of.”

Dr. Natalie Johnson is an associate professor at the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. Johnson says that while the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) have air monitors in the city, they’re not always located near frontline communities.

“The nearest TCEQ monitor is located over four miles away,” Johnson told KERA. “So this was really showing evidence, for the first time, of the local levels within the neighborhood.”

Dr. Natalie Johnson with Texas A&M discusses the findings of the health study in the Singleton corridor during a community meeting Thursday, June 20, 2024, in West Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
/
KERA
Dr. Natalie Johnson with Texas A&M discusses the findings of the health study in the Singleton corridor during a community meeting Thursday, June 20, 2024, in West Dallas.

Johnson’s team compared data from their monitor and the TCEQ’s monitor. The federal standard for daily PM2.5 pollution is 35 micrograms per cubic meter.

“And what you can see is for the [West Dallas] monitor, there were multiple times the PM2.5 daily average spiked, during the study period,” Johnson said.

“It was over 35 times in a six month period that the average PM2.5 daily concentration exceeded the EPA standard.”

In comparison, the state’s air monitor recorded daily averages ranging from 1 to 19 micrograms per cubic meter during the study period, according to Johnson.

When asked about the key findings of the study, a spokesperson for GAF told KERA via email that the company "voluntarily reduced its emissions and the amount of material that the plant can produce and has demonstrated its emission reductions through third-party stack testing."

'It is urgent'

During a Thursday evening meeting to unveil the results of the study, resident's didn't ask too many questions. The ones that they did were centered around what would happen now that the survey was complete.

"We already know what we know, right?" Cisneros told the group. "We know this because we feel it. We know we are being harmed."

Cisneros says the difference is now the harm is documented. Now the goal of Singleton United/Unidos is to "stop the exposure."

Johnson said during the meeting that lowering the amount of PM2.5 that is being emitted into West Dallas' air is urgent.

"Every day that the levels of PM2.5 are over the EPA daily air quality standard, there is an increased risk for adverse health effects," Johnson said. "It is urgent...immediate reductions in PM2.5 can have immediate effects in health improvement."

Now, community leaders say there are a few chances to speak out against heavy industries along the Singleton Corridor.

Those include a zoning change where the GAF facility now sits and fighting against state legislation that makes it harder to close down similar operations. While GAF executives are planning to leave West Dallas — some residents say their 2029 exit date is too far off.

"Please, take action, these are our families, these are our children, these are our grandparents," Cisneros said. "You really have to speak up."

Got a tip? Email Nathan Collins at ncollins@kera.org. You can follow Nathan on Twitter @nathannotforyou.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Nathan Collins is the Dallas Accountability Reporter for KERA. Collins joined the station after receiving his master’s degree in Investigative Journalism from Arizona State University. Prior to becoming a journalist, he was a professional musician.