In The Air About Our Air?

The SJEQ Project Aims To Change That

In today’s uber-connected, lightning-speed world, there’s some information that should be made public, especially if it involves one’s environment and health. 

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Through funding provided by the 70 year-old National Science Foundation, and led by CU Boulder’s Environmental Engineering and Computer Science departments, CU Denver’s Social Science department, as well as some PhD candidates and community members, the SJEQ (Social Justice and Environmental Quality) Project aims to understand and address the disruption caused by the Central 70 highway reconstruction project and related neighborhood redevelopment. For decades, the G.E.S. and Cole neighborhoods have dealt with an enormous amount of dust and pollution from a myriad of projects, starting with the erection of I-25 and I-70 in the 1950s and 60s. However, these construction projects, including the current transportation and venue/housing rebuilds, are not the only causes of higher levels of fine particulates and pollution, especially indoors.

A spokesperson for this project, Marisa Westbrook, MPH, a PhD candidate in Health and Behavioral Sciences at CU Denver, found her communal passion years ago through her interest in various neighborhoods and community member’s health and overall well-being. Westbrook has been part of the research team since this past January. For the past year, she has been out in the communities trying to build relationships, build trust, and most importantly, learning more about people’s experiences. “We want residents of the G.E.S. and Cole communities to understand that we’re not just here to collect this data and take it away from communities, but rather our goal is to collect this information and [partner] with the neighborhoods so that the communities have access to information they need to use to advocate for what we’re really talking about here–having a cleaner environment and developments that happen according to the desires of its residents.”

Initially, the focus group segment of the SJEQ Project, consisting of 32 neighbors from G.E.S. and Cole, yielded some worrisome findings. Residents’ primary concerns regarding construction and pollution included traffic patterns/lights and road closures which prevented them from getting to work, constant noise, and yes, air quality and air pollution. Because of these concerns, residents reported having to change multiple facets of their lives, such as leaving early to allow for more time for traffic and detours, staying home more often, keeping windows closed, and allowing children to play outside less often. Almost unbelievably, and based on the results of wearable air monitor readings, the inside measurements were actually worse than those readings taken outside. 

It’s these inside measurements of air quality that Rey Gallegos, a fourth-generation Globeville/Sunnyside resident and community leader/advocate is concerned with, but is especially excited about bringing to the community’s attention. “The thing that I’m really looking forward to is seeing people actually realize that our indoor air quality is actually what’s really killing us. Outdoors it’s definitely not the best here, but I had always been under the impression that our poor air quality is because of construction companies and I-70 employees.” Gallegos continued, “once you seal yourself in this little box, in your house, with all of the pollutants that have been coming in all day, and there’s no proper filtration in your home, there’s not proper air ventilation, you’re basically in a coffin, that’s really what it is.”

Enter the SJEQ project and the PurEmotion app. PurEmotion is a smartphone application that has been developed with community feedback in order to assess impacts and outcomes of this construction and pollution on a daily basis. Participants go about their daily lives wearing a lanyard with a device that is smaller than a cell phone. The device collects ambient air, downloads the data to an app, and shows individual real-time measurements such as VOC levels and particulate matter, high levels of which can be detrimental to one’s health. If the app records a certain level, it will warn the user that they ‘“may experience some levels of lung irritation and coughing.” The great thing about having these warnings, Gallegos mentions, is that “you have some control of your environment, like, oh man, maybe I should open a window… this project will really help people to get to know their own environment and be able to rectify their own air quality.” 

While the PurEmotion’s app data is received and processed, further mitigation efforts will also begin, including workshops where families can make box-fan filters. Families that participate in the study may have the opportunity to have stovetop hoods installed in their homes as well as other types of air cleaners. 

Westbrook stated there are two main elements in the next portion of the project, which includes 200 participants from the GES and Cole neighborhoods. Using the PurEmotion app, or through a physical workbook should the participant not have a smartphone, parties will provide a daily report on how they’re feeling and whatever issues they may have encountered throughout the day that appear to be related to pollution and construction. The participants will also have to answer a very brief daily questionnaire asking them how they feel and what they think about the air quality. The second element involves a smaller group carrying their own small air sensors that will trap the air wherever they’re at, inside or outside.

Success of this project means a few things to both Gallegos and Westbrook. Westbrook explained that, “from the research side, our goal is to make change, to actually make an impact and not just have this research sitting on the desk, a bookshelf. Our goal is to create data that not only residents can use to make more empowered decisions, to also have more information available about how to make these decisions related to the air around them, but also so that information can be publicly shared and used to advocate for things that matter within the community.” 

For Gallegos, this project truly hits home. “This is a food desert, there are so many aspects, in this community… the cards are stacked against us, so anytime you can give your own neighbor or friends or family the ability to make better decisions, especially when it comes to health, whether mentally or physically, it’s always better to have that power to create change in a positive way… I just don’t want people to have as many breathing problems as we did. Our kids–that’s what’s most important. My vision is to see people have an actual improvement in how they feel, because honestly, if you feel better about your environment, you feel better about a lot of other things instead of being at home being sickly, not being able to go outside and play or go run because you have all of these issues. This is about providing opportunities for our neighborhoods, and that’s ultimately the most important thing.”

Those who wish to participate in this paid study can apply and find more information online at

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