Like nearly every kid growing up in Ramona Gardens, Michelle Benavides went to Murchison Elementary School. The 19-year-old –a sophomore majoring in political science at Cal State Northridge– beamed with emotion Wednesday morning as she spoke before a group of students and guests at her alma mater.

Benavides was part of a group of Murchison alumni who returned to the school for the dedication of a new indoor air filtration system that was installed over the summer break. She and other members of the Youth Council at Legacy LA lobbied the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) to install the equipment, designed to reduce the level of outdoor pollutants inside classrooms.

“It touches my heart,” said Benavides. “We didn’t get a chance to breathe clean air when I was going to school here, but these students will.”

At the dedication ceremony, officials from SCAQMD said they expect the air filters will relieve students from exposure to contaminants in a neighborhood severely impacted by air pollution because of its closeness to the 12-lane 10 Freeway, an industrial zone and a rail line.

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Senator Kevin de León said school children have a fundamental right to clean air.

“Clean air is a fundamental human right,” said state Senator Kevin de León, whose district includes Ramona Gardens. The Senate President pro Tempore said that the high incidence of asthma in neighborhoods with unclean air is directly related to school absenteeism.

“It’s a public health issue, impacting our kids every day,” said de León.

Boyle Heights has long been known as a toxic hot spot because of its proximity to freeways, factories and rail yards.  A 2012 Boyle Heights Beat story reported that children in the 90033 ZIP Code –which includes Ramona Gardens– have an unusually high rate of asthma-related hospitalizations.

A 2012 study by the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health found that Boyle Heights is disproportionately affected by high levels of fine particulate matter pollution. Experts say exposure to the particulates can result in premature birth and birth defects and can lead to serious lung and heart conditions and even early death.

The effects of the exposure to contaminants are well known to Ramona Gardens youth. In 2014, members of the Legacy LA Youth Council contacted the SCAQMD about installing the filters at Murchison.

“It was a good fit for us, a good partnership,” said Derrick Alatorre, assistant deputy executive officer in the Legislative and Public Affairs Division at SCAQMD.

Since 2008, the state agency has overseen the installation of classroom air filters in 67 schools and one community center in Southern California locations near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Alatorre said that additional air filters have been installed in six other local schools as part of a pilot Clean Communities Plan that targeted Boyle Heights and San Bernardino.

According to SCAQMD tests, the air filtration systems at Murchison are eliminating more than 90 percent of ultra fine particulates in the air circulating inside the school, where Ramona Gardens children spend as much as 30 percent of their day.

The Murchison filters cost $411,480, the SCAQMD said. Funds came from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“It’s made a big difference to our school,” said Murchison Principal Jeremiah Gonzalez. He said that since school started this fall, student referrals to the nurse’s office for asthma and other respiratory issues had decreased noticeably.

“And it’s something that we never could have afforded with just our school budget,” the principal added.

González escorted officials and members of the media to a second grade classroom, where the air filters operate as part of the air conditioning system. “In the classroom, you don’t necessarily notice the difference, but the results as far as our office referrals have been significant,” he said.

González said it was especially satisfying that Murchison alumni spearheaded the effort. He said it was crucial for Ramona Gardens youth to become involved in social justice issues.

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Michelle Benavides beamed as she spoke before a new generation of Murchison students.

“This community has a lot of issues that impact it, and it’s great to see [alumni] taking an interest and improving conditions for the next generation of students,” González said. “This is something that is not directly impacting them, but it’s impacting the next generation of students who attend here.”

Benavides, one of the alumni who fought for the filters, said that participating in Legacy’s Youth Council influenced her view of Ramona Gardens.

“Our community lacks resources, and Legacy LA is one of the resources that we hold on to,” she said. “Through Legacy LA and the Rec Center, where I also grew up, they helped us develop these leadership skills that we can use through our life.”

Benavides said that when she arrived at Murchison on Wednesday, a student came up to her, hugged her and thanked her for her advocacy.

“It’s really rewarding to know that we created a change in our community,” Benavides said with a big smile.

Photo above: Students enjoy the clean, cool air –and the media attention– during a visit to a second grade classroom at Murchison Elementary School. The SCAQMD recently installed air filters inside the school, at a cost of over $400,000. All photos by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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