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Joppa study measuring effect of air quality on health is a first in Texas, researchers say

This story, originally published in The Dallas Morning News, is reprinted as part of a collaborative partnership between The Dallas Morning News and Texas Metro News. The partnership seeks to boost coverage of Dallas’ communities of color, particularly in southern Dallas.

The three-year community-led project with Texas A&M scientists will use data from air monitors and journals from residents tracking their symptoms.

Joppa Alicia Kendrick
Downwinders at Risk steering committee member, Alicia Kendrick with her daughter Savanna, and community liaison Misti Oquinn pose for a portrait The community and Texas A&M are partnering to conduct a study to find a link between air quality and health concerns in the community.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

By Sriya Reddy

Pauline Logan moved to Joppa from the countryside in 1957. As an 8-year-old, she already was shocked at the difference.

The noise, the air and the nauseating smell stuck out to her.

“This is just from a child’s view, I still remember, it was so striking,” Logan said.

Logan moved away from Joppa after high school, but came back to her home in 2004 after her kids moved out on their own. By this point, Logan said everything had gotten worse.

“The smell and the odor is discouraging because I know there are other areas in Dallas that don’t have to deal with this kind of particulate matter,” she said.

Now, she said that she has health issues, but isn’t sure if it’s the environment or age-related. She said that Joppa is her home and she wants to know how the air affects her health.

The Joppa Environmental Health Project is set to do just that.

Two scientists from Texas A&M are leading a study in partnership with community members who compose the steering committee and environmental advocacy group Downwinders at Risk. The study will look at the correlation between particulate matter in the air, which is measured by three air monitors in the neighborhood, and health symptoms that residents will document.

The study’s organizers have said that this is the first study of its kind in Texas.

By the end of March, the project will begin collecting data by asking residents to monitor their health symptoms through journaling while air monitors record levels of particulate matter in the area.

Joppa is one of the most polluted neighborhoods in Dallas. According to Downwinders at Risk, the air pollution comes from TAMKO Asphalt Shingle Plant, Union Pacific Switchyard, and other local industrial facilities.

These facilities release PM, or particulate matter, which is dust or soot that comes from fossil fuel engines, boilers and furnaces. These particles are so small they can enter the lungs or bloodstream of those exposed, according to the Joppa Health Project website.

“We are not only looking at physical health like respiratory disease or asthma,” A&M Scientist Ping Ma said. “We also look at if air pollution impacts mental health.”

The study will assess levels of airway inflammation by evaluating stress in the lungs during the summer, when air pollution levels are known to be high. Residents will also be asked to journal their health, including respiratory symptoms and mental health, for one week periods about three to four times a year. This will be compared to local and national data.

The three-year-long project received a grant for about $350,000 by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2020. The first year’s goal was to create the steering committee and reach out to the community.

“We’ve just learned that this is a really engaged community forward thinking about community health and its links with the environment,” A&M Scientist Natalie Johnson said. “And so that’s really helpful for us as we’ve gone through this planning phase of the different objectives of our study.”

The two scientists, Dr. Natalie Johnson and Dr. Ping Ma are heading the study. Johnson is a toxicologist focused on the health effects of particulate matter in the air, and Ping Ma is a social scientist focused on health disparities.

Johnson and Ma were determined to involve the community in their study and educate residents about their environment.

“Every voice matters,” Ma said. “We totally respected the community and also we found the community gives us a lot of good feedback. Things that we, as researchers, never thought about.”

Logan is a part of the steering committee alongside five other committee members. The steering committee works with Misti Oquinn, community liaison with Downwinders at Risk, and the two scientists to organize the project and give community context.

“There’s nothing that I do, there’s nothing that Downwinders or A&M does without clearance through the steering committee,” Oquinn said. “That means the language for handouts. That means the planning of events. Anything that happens, that is what that central body does.”

Although the project has been met with some distrust in the community, questioning why money is put into this study, Oquinn said that most community members are interested in how the air quality affects their day to day health.

She said that everyone smells the smells and experiences health concerns. However, they don’t know the specifics nor if the two are even connected.

“How do you strategize?” Oquinn said. “How do you even start to work on something if you really don’t even know what it is? If you really don’t even know how it’s affecting you?”

Johnson said that people have asked her why a study is even needed if most people know that pollution affects their health.

“We still need the local data from the air side and the health side to make the case to build the evidence that this is impacting health,” she said. “So unfortunately, we still need to motivate change to improve the environment.”

Oquinn is an Oak Cliff native, but has been involved in environmental advocacy in the neighborhood since 2018. Oquinn said that she herself has felt the effects of the environment in Joppa. She said that while she was out in Joppa for about an hour, she could feel the difference in air quality.

“You can literally feel the grit on you and there are random times where you smell a really bad sulfur smell. And you know it’s not a natural smell,” she said. “People are just breathing this in.”

Cecilia Wagner, although not a resident, goes to the New Zion Baptist Church in Joppa. She works on the ministerial staff with kids in the neighborhood and is worried about the community’s health due to the air.

“Everybody notices the smell. You can’t miss it. It smells like rotten eggs or sulfur,” Wagner said. “And there’s a dusting in the air where the particles land on cars and everything is kind of coated when the PM is high.”

Wagner was a teacher in West Dallas in the nineties and saw how the environment affected kids in that area. She said that the situation is similar in Joppa. She said when it comes to the study, she hopes that the health concerns are not as bad as she thinks they could be.

Many residents of Joppa, including Logan, monitor the PM levels using, a collaboration project that detects PM levels in real time with air monitors throughout the area. Logan said that she spends a lot of time outside and enjoys that she lives near the Trinity River Forest, but there are times when her community is encouraged to stay inside.

“When I see the monitor the pollution of particulate matter on my laptop and it’s sometimes days in the red,” Logan said. “And the only little warning that’s given says to ‘Stay inside. Particulate Matter is higher than what it should be.’ That’s discouraging.”

With the data that comes out of this study, residents and researchers hope to build a case to decrease pollutants in this neighborhood.

“The ultimate goal is to improve health and improve the environment that individuals are living in,” Johnson said. “To do that, we often will try and target different policies that can result in improving health and the environment.”

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