This was written by Samantha Schmitz, Moms Clean Air Force intern:
This summer’s Olympics are historic for many reasons; perhaps, most notable is how the games bring the world together – both physically and symbolically – during a worldwide pandemic. However, as I watch the Olympics, I’m reflecting on another public health crisis looming over the future of sports: air pollution.
Growing up with asthma, I always had an additional challenge playing sports. This was due to the numerous asthma attacks I experienced throughout my childhood, which were worse on days with bad air quality. This fall I’ll be a senior on the Harvard Women’s Soccer team, and I learned at a young age that sports are a privilege. And unfortunately, air pollution is only making sports more exclusive.
Air pollution is threatening the very future of sports by excluding kids from low-income backgrounds and communities of color due to disproportionate rates of the polluted air they breathe. According to the American Lung Association, children of color and low-income children in the US are more likely to breathe dirty air. In fact, Latinos are 165% more likely to live in counties with unhealthy levels of particulate matter pollution, and those of Puerto Rican descent have the highest asthma death rate of any demographic – 360% higher than white people. Additionally, asthma can be caused and worsened by air pollution, and Black children are over three times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthmathan their white counterparts. Not only are there lower rates of adequate health insurance for communities of color, systemic medical racism continues to persist in the US.
Air pollution has direct and drastic health risks for children besides asthma. It can lead to respiratory problems, hindered neurodevelopment and cognitive ability, childhood cancer, and chronic diseases according to the World Health Organization. Air pollution is also worsened during heat waves – just like the ones that my community, and so many others across the US have been facing as we watch the Olympics this summer. Scientists warn that these heat waves are only expected to get worse and more frequent due to climate change. Further, the effects of air pollution are exacerbated by physical activity due to the increased amounts of inhaled air, the proportion of pollutants inhaled through the mouth rather than the nose, and the depth at which pollutants are inhaled during exercise.
However, the benefits of sports are vast and range from better vision to motor skills development to social skills development. Athletes also perform better academically by learning problem-solving skills, time management, and discipline, while gaining leadership experience. Personally, sports have also shaped my relationships, my values, and my character. They’ve guided the trajectory of my life, and I believe that playing sports must be an opportunity afforded to all children regardless of zip code.
It’s imperative for the future of sports and their accessibility that we take action against the public health crisis and environmental injustice that is air pollution. This will require an extraordinary level of teamwork, but the ability of sports to forge common ties that transcend borders and political parties keeps me optimistic. Moreover, this summer’s Olympics demonstrate such an admirable and unparalleled level of international cooperation that it provides me with a beacon of hope in the fight against air pollution.