The Racial Politics Of Asthma

BY ON March 29, 2012

Dominique BrowningIn the wake of the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida, there’s been a lot of talk about the risks to black children of being shot and by whom. Last week Harry C. Alford, the President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, testified against the new Mercury and Air Toxic Standards during a Senate committee hearing.

“Poverty brings far worse health than mercury coming out of a coal plant or utility plant. Violence, crime. These kids that I see are far more likely to get a bullet in the head than asthma. And that’s the reality of it.”

Two days later, during another Senate hearing on the EPA budget, Alabama Senator Sessions claimed that air pollution victims are “unidentified and imaginary.”

But neither of these gentlemen is talking about reality.

This is reality: African American children are FAR more likely to develop asthma than get a bullet to their heads. And asthma incidence is directly linked to air pollution. One only has to read the tragically sad story from Chandra Baldwin-Woods. Her 16-year-old son, Jovante suffered an asthma attack and died after returning home from a football practice.

In 2008, African Americans had a 35% higher rate of asthma than Caucasians. A study has found that one-quarter of the children in New York City’s Harlem have asthma. The following national statistics are even more jarring:

African American children have a:

• 260% higher emergency room visit rate.

• 250% higher hospitalization rate.

• 500% higher death rate from asthma, as compared with White children.

One reason for the disparity? 68% of African-Americans (compared to 56% of Whites) live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant—the distance within which the maximum ill effects of the emissions from smokestacks occur.

Asthma is the most common chronic disease in childhood—and its incidence is increasing. In 1980, 3.6% of U.S. children had it; in 2001, 9%–an astonishing 250% increase. It afflicts more than 7 million American children and is the third-leading cause of hospitalizations among children under the age of 15.

Just as medical researchers once uncovered the link between cigarettes and lung cancer, researchers are now discovering the exact mechanism by which air pollution is linked to asthma. Kari Nadeau is a Stanford University School of Medicine physician, scientist and mother of five young children—two sets of twins! She and her colleagues have been following the evidence on the asthma trail to understand the cause of the illness. Their research is pointing to air pollution as the culprit.

Nadeau and her team investigated the effects of air pollution on children in Fresno—one of the top ten most polluted cities in the country (in fact, six of the ten are in California.) Their results were published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: Ambient Air Pollution Impairs Regulatory T-Cell Function in Asthma.

Nadeau explained her work: “Our research showed that the effects of air pollution in Fresno are associated with genetic changes in the immune cells of children. In other words, the simple act of inhaling polluted air affects the immune system’s ability to do its job. The increasing numbers and severity of asthma are directly related to these genetic changes. These genetic changes are possibly permanent. “

The immune system is Nadeau’s specialty. In an interview on Stanford’s website, she remarks:

“Many people don’t understand that the immune system is connected to so many other fields in medicine. Parts of the immune system exist most everywhere in your body (from head to toe). The immune system is involved in neurological diseases, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, asthma, and allergies, to name a few. In the field of immunology, we need to appreciate all the different areas of the body because the immune system is integrated into everything.”

Here’s the reality: Reducing air pollution is a social justice issue of profound significance. The National Black Chamber of Commerce is playing politics with children’s health. It has received $525,000 from ExxonMobil–hardly eager to end fossil fuel pollution–since 1998. But the games should end. This is something all parents–black or white–should be furious about.


TOPICS: African-American Community, Mercury Poisoning, Politics, Pollution, Social Justice

  • April Lileywick

    You are preaching to the choir, I am totally behind Stewards of the Earth, Treehugging, brake for quail crossing…
    But too many are still members of the republican party. All of a sudden a person becomes a parent, and starts thinking about the Environment. The republican creed is against thinking about the future and consequences. Anyone who is still a republican, is in the bubble and doesn’t know what is really going on.

    • Miriam

      I wish that the Democratic party were some type of environmental savior, but they are not. The bottom line is that “soft money” is being used to fund most of the Congressional representatives’ campaigns, so they owe it to their benefactors to not be aggressive about legislation against toxic fragrance products, and a host of environmental problems. Ron Paul is one of the few people in Washington who are not being bought and paid for. As far as Obama being a “green president”, I have not seen one shred of evidence to support this idea. Sadly, like Ralph Nader has stated, Washington has been purchased by large corporations, and he does not see any turnaround.

  • bevis longstreth

    Hi Dominique. This polite savaging of the NBCC’s outrageous behavior is brilliant. Congratulations. Bevis

  • tom Bulger, Canandaigua, NY

    Excellent letter. I hope you intend for it to reap many such letters to the editor.

  • Marilyn A. Ferguson

    For what it’s worth, I learned first hand with two youngest sons about importance of clean air. Had a comment from a health-care professional, “no one dies from Asthma”. If I could wish that comment to be “eaten” by that that individual. Children, all people deserve to breathe clean-air. Listen up, speak-up, add your voice to the chorus. It is a right of quality of life. Nana Ferguson


    And why is it that our glorious leaders don’t realize that we have a problem?

  • Timothy Everett

    Senator Sessions comments definitively are arrogant and show lack of empathy as well as any understanding pollution causes to us and our kids. He possess a sad lack of judgement and why is he still a senator anyway? If left up to these like minded folks, we will all be parked at oxygen bars as in Japan or worse!

    Citizen of Alabama and Texas