The Racial Politics of Asthma

Of all the health dangers that disproportionately impact black children, air pollution might be the worst

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In the wake of the tragic death of 17-year old 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.”

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

Here is the reality: African American children are far more likely to develop asthma than get a bullet to their heads. In 2008, African Americans had a 35 percent higher rate of asthma than Caucasians. A study revealed 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.

Why? One likely reason is that 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.

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Just as medical researchers once uncovered the link between cigarettes and lung cancer, researchers are now making the explicit connection between air pollution and asthma. Kari Nadeau, a physician at Stanford University School of Medicine physician, has been following the evidence on the asthma trail to understand the cause of the illness. 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—and reported the findings in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. “Our research showed that the effects of air pollution in Fresno are associated with genetic changes in the immune cells of children,” Nadeau told me. “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 permanent.”

Reducing air pollution is a social justice issue of profound significance. But the National Black Chamber of Commerce has been playing politics with children’s health. It has received $525,000 from ExxonMobil—no champion of reducing fossil fuel pollution—since 1998. This is something that all parents—black or white—should be furious about.

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