HOUSTON - Ruth Rodriguez and members of her family, all seven of them, are regulars at Spring Creek Park in Tomball.
"I try to bring the kids to the park every day to burn their energy," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez and her uncle, Jacob Ramirez, take their kids there to play. With the beautiful trees and fresh air, they never imagined the park could be hurting their health.
KPRC 2 News visited Spring Creek Park with Rice University's Dr. Will Wallace.
"Look at this, this is a nice area. We're not really near any roads, we're not that close to the ship channel, so you wouldn't necessarily expect to find high levels of pollution up here," Wallace said. "But because the way the chemistry works, that can happen."
Wallace is part of an ambitious study underway right now at the University of Houston, the University of Texas Heath and Texas Children's to track Houston's neighborhoods with the most life-threatening health problems.
They're taking years of health stats and comparing them to the prevalence of particle matter in the air.
They got help from a state-of-the-art mobile lab. It's a diesel truck packed with sensitive equipment that measures air quality in real time.
Dr. James Flynn from the University of Houston calls the truck his baby. KPRC 2 News went for a drive in the mobile lab with Flynn.
Health reporter Haley Hernandez asked, "As little as we know about cancer, we know there are things in the air right now that can cause it?"
"Correct," Flynn said. "It's all a matter of magnitude and what your exposure is to it."
The mobile lab zig-zagged all around the city. It would leave, come back, leave, come back, making sure to cover nearly every major entrance and exit to the city at least once.
The study is still preliminary, but after crunching some of the numbers, Rice's Kinder Institute came up with maps to indicate which neighborhoods have the biggest health dangers (Click on maps to see image enlarged).
"Until this project, we didn't have a sense of that," said Justin Denney with the Kindle Institute.
People living near the Houston ship channel and near Houston's airports face the highest risk. But the problems reach beyond that -- to the suburbs.
"It's not something that just hovers around the ship channel," Denney said. "It's spread out throughout the city."
KPRC 2 took the preliminary research and analyzed the neighborhoods seeing higher rates of heart attack, stroke and asthma.
When you look at the map, it's broken down by area ZIP codes, with the city of Houston Super Neighborhoods in bold.
Heart attacks are highest north and east of the city. The zone stretches all the way from Jensen over to Denver Harbor and down to Greater OST, with a pocket further south into Sienna Plantation.
Stroke is a problem in those same areas, with a cluster in the suburban area of Atascocita.
And adult asthma is prevalent across the area, but also spikes on the north side in Greater Greenspoint.
But the area surprising researchers the most is Spring Creek Park in Tomball.
Wallace explained the phenomena.
"Air from the urban core, from downtown Houston and the Ship Channel, moved down south toward Galveston and then turned around and headed up here," he said. "When all the pollution, the man-made pollution, mixed with the emissions from the trees up (in the park), it generated a potent mix."
This hits home for Rodriguez and Ramirez. Their family has lived in Tomball for more than three decades. Rodriguez's grandmother, who is also Ramirez's mom, has heart disease.
"It's kind of pretty alarming," Rodriguez said. "It's actually something big to take in, to consider. My grandma, she's had three open heart surgeries and she's had stents and she's only 50 years old."
Ramirez said he is concerned about his mom and 17-month-old daughter.
"I worry about her future," he said.
Once the study is complete, researchers hope to go into the same neighborhoods and focus on health initiatives for the people living there.
In the meantime, residents can sign up for air quality alerts, and urge their local school district to do the same.
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