Published in Colorado Newsline on May 2nd, 2023

Frances Wisebart Jacobs, a late 19th-century civic leader, is the only woman among the 16 Coloradans memorialized in stained glass on the walls of the Colorado State Capitol rotunda.

Jacobs’ legacy includes bringing free kindergarten to Denver and co-founding the organization that would ultimately become the United Way. She was also the driving force behind National Jewish Hospital, a tuberculosis sanatorium that provided free care for desperate consumptives who came to Colorado to enjoy the healing benefits of clean mountain air. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tuberculosis was a leading killer, particularly among the urban poor. Historian Jeanne Abrams notes that “no single accepted standard for tuberculosis treatment prevailed in the early years, but by 1880 medical opinion emphasized fresh air for respiratory ailments. Colorado, with its dry and sunny climate, drew tuberculosis victims like a magnet.” A 1925 report found that 60% of Colorado’s population had arrived, either directly or indirectly, to receive tuberculosis care. 

In light of the history of people coming to Colorado to heal from its clean air, our current status as one of the worst metro regions in the country when it comes to ozone pollution is shameful. Our ozone problems have been so bad that in April 2022, the EPA downgraded the Front Range from serious to severe non-attainment of federal air quality standards.

Breathing ground-level ozone is known to cause and worsen a variety of respiratory problems including chest pain, coughing, bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Poor air quality disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color, leading to increased health risks, higher health care costs, and missed school days. It is a sad irony that a state that once attracted people seeking healthful, clean air now suffers from polluted air that is sickening its citizens. 

We know that oil and gas operations are the largest source of emissions of ozone precursors. House Bill 23-1294, called Pollution Protection Measures, will enhance permit enforcement. It also includes a definition of “cumulative impacts,” a critically important step for future reform.

Key legislative allies introduced a significantly stronger bill that would have created a clean air future for Colorado. Strident opposition from the oil and gas industry and a lack of commitment from the administration of Gov. Jared Polis to advance bold measures stripped the bill of most of its key provisions. This means that frontline communities will have to continue waiting for relief. And yet, the provisions that remain are important first steps for addressing our ozone pollution problem. The creation of an interim committee, as the bill would do, is one of those steps.

Until last week, the history lesson I shared above was an abstract reminder that we should honor our history as a destination for healing. For us at Colorado Jewish Climate Action, the memory of increased risk suffered by the working poor in the late 19th and early 20th centuries serves as a reminder of our current responsibility to fight for environmental justice.

And then my child had a severe asthma attack and was briefly admitted to the ICU. My family received a stark reminder that while disproportionately impacted communities are most at risk from ozone pollution, this problem harms us all.

Moving forward, my wife and I need to be on guard during those all too frequent summer days when dangerously high ozone levels are a hazard for sensitive groups, including those with asthma. This health scare redoubled my commitment to solving Colorado’s ozone pollution problem. In that spirit, I urge our state representatives to look up at the figures memorialized in the Capitol rotunda and honor Colorado’s legacy as a refuge of healing by committing themselves to continuing the fight for clean, healthful air.

Moshe Kornfeld is the director of Colorado Jewish Climate Action.