“It’s a human right to breathe clean air — and that right is being violated, right now!”
So declares Shashawnda Campbell in the new documentary: Unbreathable: The Fight for Healthy Air, streamed recently at the DC Environmental Film Festival in honor of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Air Act.
If you’ve ever wondered what the Clean Air Act is and why it matters, especially where our kids’ health is concerned, watch this short eye-opening film. It uses powerful stock footage to show just how polluted the air was before the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, what a difference clean air regulations have made, and how much more work still needs to be done to ensure that every American can breathe clean air.
The film premieres at a pivotal time. Enforcement of existing air pollution regulations is being undercut by a president that has given the Environmental Protection Agency carte blanche to do more to protect polluters than people with its racist agenda. The film makes abundantly clear what a devastating impact this is having on our air.
Take the regulations that have increased fuel efficiency for cars and trucks. Every gallon of gasoline a vehicle burns emits pollutants that cause smog and climate change, so the farther a vehicle travels on a gallon, the less pollution it emits. Current EPA efforts would put the brakes on vehicle efficiency, which would inevitably result in more gasoline being burned and more pollution getting emitted.
“Four million kids get asthma every year,” says Gina McCarthy, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, “just because they live in close proximity to a major roadway. We have to do better than that.”
Every day we breathe about 20,000 times, the film reports. Yet in addition to kids, many of us adults do so at our own peril, too. Nearly half of all Americans inhale unhealthy levels of pollution along with our daily doses of oxygen, and that has serious consequences. Increasing evidence links air pollution to heart attacks, birth defects, cancer, and dementia.
The severity of coronavirus has been definitively connected to air pollution,too. And yet, even with almost 125,000 deaths and 2.4 million cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. reported as of June 21, 2020, the Trump Administration and many in Congress advocate for loosening, not tightening, clean air laws and regulations.
Unbreathable showcases places in the U.S. where air pollution is untenable. In St. John the Baptist parish west of New Orleans, for example, resident Tish Taylor of Concerned Citizens for St. John, drives through her neighborhood pointing out how many people have cancer. Residents attribute their sickness to the toxic pollution being emitted by Dupont’s Denka factory, a facility that manufactures neoprene synthetic rubber. Taylor says that the factory created the highest likelihood in the country of people who would get cancer from air pollution.
The activist was four when the plant started emitting chloroprene, a type of synthetic rubber. Her generation started suffering from allergies, she says. Her brother had kidney disease.
“Our children, they were all born with asthma, upper respiratory problems all the time. The next generation just got worse. The rate of cancer around the Dupont Denka plant has been so high for so many years that people call this area Cancer Alley. People can’t sell their homes because no one wants to live on Cancer Alley. All we want is for them to make it safe so we can live here.”
In Clairton, PA outside Pittsburgh, where a coke plant operates, children have been diagnosed with a rate of 22% for asthma, nearly three times the national average.
On Christmas Eve, 2018, a major fire at the Clairton Coke Works sent toxic chemicals airborne that local citizens didn’t know about for weeks. At a public meeting one mom took the microphone to ask, “How long will our kids be expected to play inside, and why should they be expected to play inside?”
Said another person, “There’s a problem in Clairton but there’s a problem all around Clairton, because this pollution travels.”
A strong message of the film is that air pollution has a disproportionate impact on communities of color, lower income white communities, and the farmland through which 2.4 million miles of oil and gas pipelines cut.
“Stop creating sacrifice zones,” urges Mustafa Santiago Ali, the Vice-president for Environmental Justice, Climate and Community Revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.
On a positive note, one graphic chart shows how much pollution declined from 1970 to 1997. Carbon monoxide levels dropped 50%; particle pollution was down 45%; and sulfur dioxide dropped 40%. Meanwhile, improved health generated $22 trillion in economic benefits.
Baltimore’s Shashawnda Campbell recounts the success she had as a high school student organizing other students into a group called Free Your Voice that ultimately defeated a trash incinerator that would have been built less than a mile from her school.
“Is it fair to have your life cut short because of where you were born? We say that it’s not fair, that it’s not right. “
WATCH HERE: UNBREATHABLE – The Fight For Healthy Air