When it comes to the environment, no one is more passionate than Dr. William “Bill” Burke. During his long career heading the South Coast AQMD Governing Board, he achieved wide acclaim for his success in tackling regional air quality issues.
Burke’s efforts earned national attention on June 27 when he became the first African American to receive the Thomas W. Zosel Outstanding Individual Achievement Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The presentation PA in recognition of his decades-long advocacy to improve public health and ensure environmental justice in all communities.
“This is basically the highest award you can give in the United States for environmentalism, so I was shocked when they called me and said I had received it,” Burke said. “But I think it’s a wonderful thing and I’m very honored.”
Considering his deep commitment to environmental concerns, it’s not surprising that Burke was tapped for the commendation. As AQMD chair, he established the Asthma and Outdoor Air Quality Consortium to better understand the relationship between air pollution exposure and asthma, the Health Effects of Air Pollution Foundation to research the potential connections between air pollution, lung tumors and brain cancer, and created the Helping Hands Initiative to sponsor green job training during the Great Recession of 2009.
Six years later, Burke founded AQMD’s Environmental Justice Community Partnership to strengthen relations with environmental justice groups and local communities as well as address environmental inequities in communities of color. Another initiative by Burke – Why Healthy Air Matters (WHAM) school program – educated youth and young adults about air quality issues and engaged young people in the campaign for environmental equity.
While those actions were monumental, the initiative that Burke is most proud of is the Green Institute, which involved a collaboration with the renowned surgeon, Dr. Keith Black to study the connection between air pollution and the brain.
“The research showed that the air you breathe can affect your lungs and cause brain damage,” Burke recalled.
“To go a step further, they found out that for pregnant women, the pollution can get into their bloodstream and affect the fetus. I thought that was fantastic information that must be shared with the world.”
And Burke spread that message and more throughout his 27 years on the AQMD Board, which included 23 years as the chairman. Although he retired in 2021, he maintains his dedication to improving the environment.
Inviting others to join his efforts, Burke said, “I advise community members to get involved in controlling their own environment. People have to become aware and when they become aware, they become active in the environmental movement and can cause change.”