Report: Black, poor children face higer toxic air risks

Health & Fitness
Report: Black, poor children face higer toxic air risks
By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer
Updated Jun 2, 2008, 02:31 pm

(FinalCall.com) - Sixteen-year-old Jeremy Jackson walks to school every day in the East area of Houston. In route to his destination, huge dumping trucks carrying hazardous cargo pass by him on residential streets. The trucks are headed to a nearby waste site that is adjacent to his neighborhood.

Before Jeremy can reach school, the damage has already been done. He closes his eyes to the floating dust, inhales the toxic air and releases a slight cough.

“This is an everyday thing for us in this neighborhood. I’m sure most of us young people will be sick in years to come and develop asthma if we don’t have it already”, Jeremy told The Final Call.

A new report released on May 13 by PolicyLink and The California Endowment presents a strategy to fight the environmental triggers of childhood asthma that is impacting homes, schools, playgrounds and neighborhoods and leaves millions of children gasping for air. The report also lays out a plan for what community residents all can do to make the air of children safer and healthier.

“Too many kids in poor communities are forced to breathe unhealthy air from the moment they get up to the moment they go to sleep,” said Judith Bell, president of PolicyLink.

The report, titled “Breathing Easy from Home to School: Fighting the Environmental Triggers of Childhood Asthma,” states that “the asthma epidemic is clearly a crisis, affecting more than 10 million children nationwide—about one in every seven school-aged kids. In some communities—particularly low-income communities and communities of color—as many as one in four children suffer from asthma.”

Rates for emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and death among children due to asthma are substantially higher in Black children in comparison to White children. Thirteen percent of all children suffering from asthma are Black compared to 8% White. Puerto Ricans lead the nation at 19%.

Within the 60-pages of research, policy recommendations and history, the report also notes that children in high-risk communities are exposed daily to countless environmental hazards: exhaust-spewing cars, trucks and buses on nearby highways; unregulated industrial plants; and schools with poor ventilation and mold.

“We must eliminate the environmental asthma triggers that are leaving millions of our children gasping for air,” said Ms. Bell. PolicyLink advocates that fixing these problems will require the concerted partnership of community organizations and policymakers and that its report builds on the innovative efforts to combat asthma triggers by more than a dozen organizations nationwide based in cities such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

Case studies made by advocacy groups in these cities have recognized that overcrowded, substandard housing affects the health of residents, especially children with asthma. Coalitions created projects to better understand the link between health and housing combined with taking action. All the groups have identified similar keys to success: educating, organizing and empowering residents; creating diverse coalitions; and undertaking research and using the results to make the case for achievable and sustainable policy change.

“Unfortunately, children residing in low-income communities are often exposed to unhealthy levels of environmental toxins not found in more affluent communities,” said Dr. Robert K. Ross, president and CEO of The California Endowment. “It is essential we ensure all neighborhoods are free of harmful chemicals and other pollutants that exacerbate asthma symptoms.”

Since 2001, the Healthy Public Housing Initiative in Boston has involved residents in research and action to improve public housing conditions. The project has focused on safe and economical pest control, and reducing asthma triggers, including dust mite exposure and poor air quality, for residents of public housing. In the first phase of the project, public housing residents trained as community health advocates surveyed 238 families about environmental issues in their homes. Homes were found to be infested with cockroaches and mice. Desperate residents were using pesticides extensively, including using illegal and restricted pesticides in their homes to try and get rid of them. Almost 50 percent of households had a high enough concentration of cockroach allergens to trigger asthma. Nearly 60 percent of the tested children showed allergic sensitivity to them.

Dr. Ross added that, “it is essential we ensure all neighborhoods are free of harmful chemicals and other pollutants that exacerbate asthma symptoms.”

Seeded by the work of the advocacy groups, the Breathe Easy report suggests a host of policy and practice changes to significantly reduce childhood asthma, including: rehabilitating schools that have become havens for mold, dust and poor ventilation; using popular global warming legislation to push broader air quality issues; enforcing systematic inspections of rental housing; encouraging the construction of “asthma-safe” homes; and encouraging schools to use “green” cleaning products and non-toxic pest control methods.