‘How do you tell your kid they can’t go outside?’: Columba Sainz is fighting for clean air

Phoenix, AZ // Credit: Ken Dewey - University of Nebraska

This summer, there has been no shortage of crises with record-breaking heatwaves and wildfires on top of a global pandemic that has claimed over 200,000 lives in the US. However, there is one state that has been fighting another silent epidemic for decades: Arizona.

According to Arizona resident Columba Sainz, a mother of three and an environmental justice advocate, Latino communities are disproportionately impacted by air pollution. In fact, 68% of Latinos in the US live in areas that do not meet federal air quality standards. And what’s worse is that Latino children have a 60% higher chance of developing asthma due to air pollution. The latest estimates show that more than 1.81 million Latinos live within one-half mile of existing oil and gas facilities.

Sainz, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico who grew up in Tucson, and her family moved to Phoenix, Arizona three years ago. “It was really exciting to feel that we found the perfect place to live and that we were never going to move from there,” said Sainz, whose family had moved three times before finally putting down roots in Maricopa county. “I fell in love with this community, a community that has lived in Phoenix for more than 100 years, and they embraced us with open arms.”

Two months into living in their new home, Sainz and her husband were woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of their three-year-old daughter gasping for air in her bed. They were shocked as the toddler didn’t have any prior respiratory issues. After a trip to the pediatrician that was a dead-end, it didn’t take long for Sainz to connect the dots between her daughter’s puzzling condition and the air quality of Maricopa county. The knowledge that the air quality was so toxic to her family was devastating and undeniable.

“How do you tell your kid they can’t go outside? How do you tell them they can’t go to the park?” asks Sainz. “They need to run, they need to exercise and just be in nature”.

Columba Sainz and her daughter at an Ecomadres Play-in // Credit: Moms Clean Air Force

A year and a half into living in Phoenix and expecting her third child, Sainz was terrified to go outside. yet she didn’t let this stop her from taking action to protect her family and community. Sainz joined Ecomadres, an initiative by Moms Clean Air Force, which brings Latina moms together to address issues of clean air, climate, and toxic pollutants that affect the health of Latino children and families.

“We want them to empower them as moms and make sure they know everything about how environmental issues such as climate change, or air pollution are connected to the health of our children and community.’ said Sainz. “The Latino community is the most vulnerable in every sense. We are the ones on the frontlines of the pandemic as essential workers, and the ones being hit the hardest by the wildfires in the West.”

Higher levels of air pollution exposure are linked to a higher COVID-19 death rate

Last month, the Arizona chapter of Moms Clean Air Force along with staff and volunteers from 14 states testified at the Environmental Protection Agency’s virtual public hearing on ground-level ozone. In the middle of a global respiratory pandemic, the EPA chose to keep the standards for smog the same despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that the current standards are still causing significant harm.

For Phoenix, a city with a multi-generational Latino community, this is particularly alarming. A person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15% more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with one unit less of the fine particulate pollution. Breathing in pollutants inflames and damages the lining of the lungs over time, compromising the body’s ability to fight respiratory infections.

Earlier this April, researchers at Harvard University published a nationwide study that found that higher levels of air pollution led to a higher COVID-19 death rate. This isn’t just statistics — Arizona suffered the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the country this summer.

‘We must vote like our lives depend on it.’

The pandemic isn’t stopping Sainz or the Moms Clean Air Force on their crusade for clean air and environmental justice. Ecomadres continues to meet with elected officials, host virtual Cafecitos, and engage and educate new moms across the country. “We need clean air. We need to be moving to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. Not in 30 years, not in 50 years. The time to act is right now.”

This year, 32 million Latinos are eligible to vote in the upcoming presidential election, representing close to 13% of the total electorate. With the upcoming election, Sainz wants to make sure we mobilize our Latino community into taking collective action to protect the most vulnerable. And it starts by having empathy and stepping into the shoes of others and treating them like family.

As a woman of faith, she believes in her duty to take care of life from conception all the way to natural death. “Think about all the children in cages or the mothers who are running away from violence in her country. We need to think about all the people who have been incarcerated unjustly. We have to think about all the youth that is here under DACA,” she says passionately. “We need to think of others because when we do that, it’s impossible not to get out and vote.”

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