For my family of asthma sufferers, the implications of a new study connecting black women to higher incidents of asthma, adds to our already heightened (post-Trayvon Martin) consciousness of racism’s presence. For us, racial hatred, discrimination and disparate treatment, in their blatant and more subtle incarnations, are additional forms of pollution wreaking havoc on our health and our well-being.
In a new study from the Slone Epidemiology Center (SEC) at Boston University, researchers found that African-American women who reported more frequent experiences of racism had a greater likelihood of adult-onset asthma. The study followed 38,142 black women from 1997 thru 2011. As participants in the Black Women’s Health Study (the largest follow-up study of the health of African American women in the United States), subjects completed health questionnaires every two years. The surveys asked them to provide information on their experiences of “everyday” racism, like poor service in restaurants or stores, and on their experiences with “lifetime” racism, like discrimination by police, on the job or in housing. The study found that as “everyday” and “lifetime” racism increased, the incidence of adult-onset asthma also rose. Study participants showed up to 45% increase in the highest category of the racism measures compared to women in the lowest category. This increase was even higher for those in the highest category of “everyday” racism, their measures showing an upward climb both in 1997 and in 2009.
Researchers suggest that the mechanism at play, connecting racism to disease, is stress. The affects of stress on the immune and respiratory systems are well-documented. Lead researcher, Dr. Patricia Coogan, indicates that the experiences of racism, as reported by the study participants, cause a level of stress that has the potential to undermine the health of black women. She says,
“Racism is a significant stressor in the lives of African-American women, and our results contribute to a growing body of evidence indicating that experiences of racism can have adverse effects on health.”
Black women have higher rates of many illnesses, such as hypertension, more virulent forms of breast cancer at young ages, diabetes, stroke, and lupus. African Americans suffer asthma and respiratory ailments at disproportionately higher rates than the rest of the population. Isn’t it interesting that stress plays a role in all of these ailments as a trigger and exaserbator?
Those of us involved in clean air issues (and sounding of the alarm about the epidemic numbers of African-American asthma suffers) know that African-American communities who grapple with asthma, allergies and other chronic respiratory diseases, must add racism to the list of triggers against which many feel powerless. Racism is another pollution whose toll is highest among people-of-color, already disproportionately poor and without adequate access to quality education.
This is not a “oh poor me” statement about the inequities in our country. This a call out about a reality that is everyone’s responsibility and burden. Racism kills…and it makes us sick. Like all of the other forms of man-made pollution diminishing our health, it is completely within our power to make a difference.