'She Coughs When She's Sleeping': Life In Polluted Pacoima

When Amanda Rivera was diagnosed with asthma as a child, everyone told her she’d grow out of it. Instead, Rivera feels like she grew into it.

“It just got worse as I got older,” Rivera said. “I’ve been to like so many doctors, specialists and no one has been able to get rid of the cough.”

For her whole life, Rivera has lived in the same house in the east San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Pacoima, a region with poor air quality in already smoggy L.A. county. Over the years, she’s accrued a tote bag-full of asthma equipment: daily inhalers, rescue inhalers, and nebulizer machines. For Rivera, asthma is just part of her routine.

“Lost cause,” she laughs, then inhales deeply to catch her breath.

Her younger brother, Aaron Ortiz, can’t remember his sister without the condition. It’s part of how he recognizes her.

“She’s always coughing. That’s how you know she’s home,” Ortiz said. “She coughs when she’s sleeping... she can’t laugh without coughing.”

Ortiz took a particular interest in his sister’s condition as a UC Santa Cruz environmental science student. For one class, he researched Pacoima’s history of redlining, industry and high rates of respiratory problems.

“It just hit me... that’s like describing my life,” Ortiz said.

His sister doesn’t hold it against her hometown’s air for possibly causing and likely exacerbating her asthma. But Ortiz definitely does.

“It’s like this weird pain and anger, knowing that, like, you and your family are statistics,” he said.

Pacoima Businesses Are Big Producers Of Chemicals

According to Michael Jerrett, a UCLA public health professor, Pacoima faces multiple challenges when it comes to air quality. For starters, the geography of the region, a valley, causes air-toxic chemicals, like nitrogen dioxide and ozone to settle near ground level. It’s like liquid in a bowl. That’s where small particles get into people’s lungs, where they can cause inflammation.

It also doesn’t help that Pacoima is a big producer of those chemicals. Whiteman airport, Sun Valley power plant, the 5, 210, 118 freeways, and other industrial facilities pump pollution into an atmosphere where it is difficult to disperse.

“There is a scientific literature out there that would suggest that people living in more polluted areas are more likely to develop asthma,” Jerrett said. “And they’re more likely to have severe and more frequent symptoms.”

Air Quality Bike Tour

Recently, Ortiz started volunteering with a local environmental justice group, Pacoima Beautiful, in part because of what he learned in school. He and other volunteers venture across the neighborhood to measure tiny amounts of chemicals — known as fine particulate matter — in the air.

I joined Ortiz on a recent air quality survey bike ride around the neighborhood to try to identify the biggest polluters.

He started the session at his kitchen table, turning on the handheld air quality monitor, a white, plastic device shaped like a ghost, complete with two googly eyes.

The monitor syncs up with a map on his phone to automatically mark our path with green, yellow and occasionally orange lines, indicating the level of fine particulate matter in the air.

Green is good. Other colors are less good — even asthma inducing. Just in Ortiz’s house, the air quality is in the moderate yellow zone aka "potentially harmful for unusually sensitive groups."

“We’re not cooking anything. We didn’t light any candles. This is just regular old air quality,” Ortiz said.

With that baseline in mind, we set off down the bike path on San Fernando Road, past the airport, and alongside a Metrolink train. The little ghost swings from Ortiz’s backpack, taking it all in.

Somewhere along the way, the measurement spikes into the orange zone —"unhealthy for sensitive groups." Then, as we turn down a street full of auto shops and recycling centers, back down into the yellow. Finally, we ride around the Valley Generating Station, a gas power plant recently found to have been leaking methane for years.

For most of the residential streets around Ortiz’s house, our path is marked green. All around that power plant though, our course was marked yellow.

“Suspicious, huh?” Ortiz said. “It ain’t good.”

This yellow reading is just one data point, but if Ortiz finds more evidence of high particulate, Pacoima Beautiful could use that to support their case for shutting down the generating station. Already, L.A. City Council voted to consider shuttering it.

That’s a long term goal. In the short term, Ortiz hopes to share this information with his family and community.

“I wouldn’t even have noticed these things because everyone here is just so used to it,” Ortiz said “Like, we’re here. This is our home.”

He wants people to understand they’re part of the environment, even when they can’t see it.

Associated Programs: Green Together Collaborative and Air Quality