Air Pollution is Making Us Sick

BY ON June 30, 2011

Last week I listened to a blog radio chat between Renee Ross, the health editor of BlogHer; Dr. Sande Okelo from John Hopkins Children’s Center; and Vernice Miller-Travis, the vice president of the Maryland State Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities.

Ross has a son with asthma, which has worsened in this year’s heightened allergy season. Dr. Okelo treats children with asthma and just released a study indicating that “African-American patients are suffering longer from poorly controlled asthma than their Caucasian counterparts before being seen by an asthma specialist.” Miller-Travis has been in the trenches of environmental justice for 26 years.

I was appalled by how long it has been acceptable in this country for businesses to pollute at the expense of African-American children and other vulnerable people’s health. Here is a snippet of the conversation between Ross, Dr. Okelo and Miller-Travis:

After describing the health impact of locating a sewage treatment plant near residents in Harlem in the 1980s and 1990s, Miller-Travis and her colleagues found that “we had the highest rates of asthma in the country. Asthma onset, overall rate of asthma…we were aghast when we put those pieces together. But there was no seeming parallel energy in the public health community.

“We had to get people energized and fired up, and get people really engaged in a process with their local enviromental agencies…to put political pressure on environmental protection agencies to protect us, which they weren’t doing.”

Dr. Okelo, who spoke only of his treatment of asthma patients, said of his report’s findings: “What we found is that black children (with asthma) were arriving (to the hospital) having had more problems than white children. For example, black children were hospitalized twice whereas white children were hospitalized once. Black children were likely to be in the emergency room twice as much as white children.”

In terms of parents tying asthma to air pollution, Dr. Okelo said, “People are aware of certain contaminants and not others like people are aware of cigarette smoke.”

Both Dr. Okelo and Miller-Travis said that parents were opting to keep their children indoors so that their asthma wouldn’t be exacerbated by dirty air particles. Said Dr. Okelo: “I think (parents) are particularly concerned when there are weather warnings whether it be the pollan or the ozone. They are worried …Most parents are deciding to keep their children indoors.”

Miller-Travis gave this disturbing example of the impossible position polluters have put parents: “Of course you want your children to be outside. Physical education is important. In many communities it is diffcult to be outside because the air quality is so poor. We’ve argued for a really long time that while a park on top of a treatment facility is nice, but is it really the best place for our children to play? We think the answer is no. But in a place where there are few places for children to play outside…Do you send your children out to play in that?”

Also, some communities’ air quality have deteriorated over time, regardless whether they are located near a treatment plant, Miller-Travis said.

While I was struck by how long Miller-Travis has bravely fought the good fight, two other things stood out to me about this conversation: one, how acceptable it has become to pollute in the neighborhoods of people of color — why isn’t this considered racism? — and two, how this issue has been framed as one of personal responsibility. For example, it is okay to call out parents for smoking, but not to alert them to air pollution by nearby companies, or hold these businesses accountable.

Asthma rates in this country have shot up in recent years, particularly among African American and Latino children, even as smoking rates have declined thanks to an aggressive public education campaign that includes smoking bans in restaurants, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to increased diagnoses in our communities — I am Latina, by the way — asthma costs grew from about $53 billion in 2002 to about $56 billion in 2007.

In other words, this is an issue that needs addressing. It is costing us in both money and lives. Both Dr. Okelo and Miller-Travis offered practical solutions for an otherwise depressing topic.

Dr. Okelo, whose area of expertise is treatment of young asthma patients, said that children can be diagnosed with the disease at any age, and that asthmatic symptoms can worsen or become mild over time. The important thing is for parents to follow up with a diagnosis by making sure that their children’s symptoms are under control with the right medication.

“Medicine is safe and can be taken for years. There are a whole lot of negative consequences for not being on the right medication: lost days in school and work, hospitalizations….A lot of parents and patients do have concerns of becoming ‘dependent on medication’… These asthma medicines you don’t develop a dependency (like narcotics).”

Miller-Travis was impressive in many ways. Not only has she advocated on behalf of children in her community for 26 years, she is also on the board of the National Healthy Schools Network, a non-profit coalition of experts focused on the environmental health of children at school. As it turns out, the indoor quality of schools is sometimes the “the worst air a child can be exposed to,” Miller-Travis said. “The school buildings children are going to are so old…the use of pesticides inside the school building or in the immediate vicinity of the school building. There are not a lot of air quality protections inside the school building.”

Miller-Travis said there isn’t a lot of movement on the federal level, but on the local level parents and teachers are taking charge to build schools with non-toxic materials and/or switch to non-toxic products when cleaning the inside a school’s building.

“We need mothers to get involved,” she said. “This is a people-powered type of thing.”

Miller-Travis said it wasn’t enough to only organize online. “Not everyone has access to a computer. There is a generational divide….We need to go door-to-door to bring folks out.”

She also emphasized the importance of educating people on the Clean Air Act, which hasn’t been fully implemented because the country’s top polluters have filed lawsuits against the EPA. “One of the things that people can do is to call their members of Congress, visit their member offices to let them know why this is important as a parent….I think you are a particularly powerful constituency not heard from as an organized (group).”

For ways that parents can meet with each other and either visit or write to their members of Congress, BlogHer’s Ross suggested that we sign up for Moms Clean Air Force — of which I am a proud member! Here is MCAF’s Facebook and Twitter pages. We are having another live blog radio chat about this very topic on July 6 at 9 p.m. ET..

MomsRising.org — of which I am a proud member, too! — also organizes parents to meet with their members of Congress both in writing and in-person. Considering what’s at stake for not being involved — our children’s future — we can’t afford not to speak out.

(Photo courtesy of Think Progress)

TOPICS: Asthma, Pollution