PROFILE: COLUMBA SAINZ
SOCIAL ISSUES TEND TO be presented like competing problems
we’re supposed to work on separately. In reality, most people
experience layers of interrelated problems. Columba Sainz’s story
of environmental activism demonstrates how pollution, poverty,
race, immigration, health issues, and even transportation problems
combine to make life difficult for families.
While raising two young girls and a baby boy in Phoenix,
Columba has struggled to improve her family’s health. Only two
months after moving from Tucson in 2018, Columba’s two-year-old
daughter, who had no known medical issues, started wheezing
at night and feeling very ill. Doctors prescribed asthma medicine
without hesitation, but Columba was uneasy about the side effects
of constant medication and wondered if something in the environment
was causing such a sudden onset of symptoms.
She soon began worrying about the health of the rest of her
family. Her four-year-old daughter developed respiratory problems
as well. Columba became horribly sick during her entire
pregnancy with her son. Researching her family’s personal health
mystery, she learned that other families like hers were also suffering.
“That’s when I discovered that a disproportionate number of Latino children
[in Phoenix] have asthma in comparison to white people. I started
to connect all the dots. If I live here, who else lives here? Who can
afford to live here? What’s happening in my surroundings?”
Columba discovered her family was living in an air pollution
“hot spot” in downtown Phoenix, where emissions from specific
sources expose the population to high risks of adverse health
effects. Busy freeways surrounded her home in one of the fastest-
growing counties in the country. Two huge nearby parking lots
housed city and school buses each night, creating concentrated
sources of diesel fumes as the buses left and returned each day.
And she was only five minutes away from the busy Phoenix Sky
Harbor International Airport, ranked thirteenth for traffic in the U.S.
“On top of that, the topography of this area is like a big bowl
combining it all with high heat,” she explained. Each July, Phoenix
averages a daily maximum temperature between 104 and 107 degrees
Fahrenheit. “In the summer, we have constant high polluted days. So,
me taking my daughter to the park right in front of my house for two
or three hours was the worst thing I could do as a mother.”
Data from the American Lung Association’s 2020 State of
the Air report aligned with Columba’s experience.
It ranked the Phoenix area as having some of the worst air in the country.
Specifically, Maricopa County—where Columba’s family continues to
live—received an F grade with far more alert days for high levels
of harmful ground-level ozone than anywhere else in Arizona.
Although Columba was not sure how to use this information
to help protect her family, she was well aware of the power of
Congress to address problems like pollution. Working with Mi
Familia Vota, a civic engagement organization, she understood
how to unite communities to elect candidates for change. But the
idea of working on legislation with lawmakers was new to her
until she learned about Moms Clean Air Force, an organization of
over 1.4 million parent activists with a mission to protect children
from air pollution and climate change.
Columba shared their vision for a safe, stable, and equitable
future where all children breathe clean air. With them, she learned
to speak from her heart to advocate with lawmakers for just and
healthy solutions to air pollution. Those in-person conversations
with parents were critical to convincing legislators to take action.
“We go to meetings not as experts or scientists, but as moms,”
Columba explained. “As moms, we know the impacts on our
Columba shows elected officials how seemingly separate
issues overlap. She wasn’t aware of the hot spot phenomenon
when she was looking for a home, but low housing prices suggest
the real estate industry had a good idea something undesirable
was happening there. The polluted area is home primarily to people
of color, which means the neighborhood’s pollution problems
feed racial injustice. And because those living in the hot spot are
low-income residents, they are less likely to have good health
insurance or adequate resources to cope with the health challenges
caused by the pollution.
For example, filtered air conditioning in a hot Arizona summer
provides indoor relief, but it’s a financial burden many can’t afford.
Columba affirmed, “A bill of electricity [with air-conditioning]
is really expensive. Sometimes it’s the same amount you would pay
for a one-bedroom apartment. Imagine having no work during
the pandemic summer of 2020, having no health insurance, and
having asthma without air conditioning in your house.”
Even worse than the lack of funds for air conditioning is the
lack of healthcare. Columba advocates alongside families who
don’t have money to cover an emergency visit without insurance.
In addition, the immigrant population worries about confrontations
over citizenship. Columba encountered a little girl whose
single father was undocumented. She tried to keep her asthma in
check just by sheer will alone to protect him.
“I don’t know how this kid did it!” Columba marveled. “When
she had an asthma attack, she would do her best to control herself.
Sometimes our children are afraid to go to an E.R. because
we are afraid that they will ask, ‘Where are your papers? Where
is your social security?’ I think that’s horrible, you know? When
you need to go to the emergency room, you need to go. When
you don’t have the papers, they won’t take care of you because they
know they can’t charge anyone for the medical assistance. And it’s
expensive. It’s really, really expensive.”
Today, Columba and her family live ten minutes outside of
the downtown Phoenix area where they suffered so many health
problems. Even such a small distance makes a significant improvement
in air quality. Yet she continues to work with mothers in
places where she used to live and keeps their stories close to her
heart. Once she met a desperate mom who was running away from
one area to help her child with severe respiratory issues. But she
stopped to rest in a park in the hot spot, which was worse. It was
as if that mother was running from an invisible monster with no
idea which way to turn.
“She had everything in her car,” Columba remembered. “She
said, ‘I drove all the way here because I thought I was going to
find clean air. And now I don’t know where to go. Can you tell me
where to go? Do you know where the air is clean?’ Her story was
even worse than mine . . . like life or death. That’s the desperation
of a mother who has been exposed to air pollution.”
“What gives me the fuel to do this with all my heart,”
Columba insisted, “is that, as a mother, I want my children to grow
connecting with nature. I keep doing it because I want my children
to be able to breathe clean air. We have data that agrees that
if we don’t take action in thirty-five years, we’re going to be living
with a lot of things we don’t want. We’re living with them even
now! I want to leave a better planet for my children’s children."