When Pollution Becomes a Public Health Issue

sierra club smokestacks photo

Rosa Perea spends many days struggling to help her five-year old son, Yousef Abdallah, control his severe asthma. Her Chicago neighborhood is home to numerous polluting industries—most of which emit soot and smog pollution.

"It's so hard," Perea says, "before this I've never been close or had anybody in my family who had asthma, but now I realized how difficult it is to control it, and make sure he takes medicine and stays well. I've had to take him to the emergency room and it's really scary. Especially when he was really little and they put the little mask on him...it was so sad."

yousef adbullah sierra club photo
Perea gives Yousef two puffs of medicine every morning, and if he plays at the park or is being really active, then she has to give him more emergency medicine to stop him from having a severe asthma attack.

"It's really sad, because he just loves sports," she says. "When he was little he didn't watch cartoons, he watched college basketball and pro baseball, ESPN."

Perea and her son are only two of millions of Americans suffering because our country's polluters. Burning coal and oil for energy causes excessive soot, smog and mercury in our air and water, among other pollutants.

That's why the Sierra Club is launching our new Stop Polluters campaign aimed at exposing the public health damages from burning coal and using dirty oil.

Fortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exists to enforce much needed safeguards to keep polluters from making us sick from emissions like soot, smog and mercury.

In the 40 years since Americans demanded its creation, the EPA has saved millions of lives by enforcing clean air and water standards. More than 1.7 million asthma attacks and $110 billion in health costs were avoided in 2010 alone thanks to the agency's efforts.

Perea's community is very affected by pollution. She is the Assistant Director of the Centro Comunitario Juan Diego, a Latino community health clinic on the south side of Chicago. The Centro serviced 19,000 people last year even though it is run by an all-volunteer staff with no doctor or nurse on staff.

While the Centro's main initiative to train women to become community health educators, they are also heavily involved in environmental education. "We became very aware of the environment, because everything is linked," she said.

"We reach out to the community about the environmental factors in their health," explained Perea. "For example—telling people not to let their kids play near this one terminal where trucks carrying crushed coal come out, and the air is filled with dust. We tell them to keep an eye on the kids with asthma on days when it is very dry, and they don't water down the coal ash. They can't breathe that air."

Perea noted that the community's poverty levels make healthcare very challenging for families - especially when they don't always realize the connection between the environment and their ailments.

"Because we're always trying to make sure our bills are paid and food is on the table, thinking about pollution in the air ends up last on the list. People have other priorities, and it's difficult to get people to see the connections between the environment and their health."

Unfortunately her community is dominated by industry that rarely benefits residents.

"Because South Chicago used to have so many steel refineries, most people just think of this neighborhood as a place for industry and no one really questions when a new polluter comes in. All of this is going over our heads—we don't even acknowledge that this is affecting our body systems. And the big companies who have power take advantage of that."

Despite her volunteer work with the Centro and deep commitment to the community, Rosa says she would move to a less-polluted neighborhood, if she had the means.

"If I could get (my son) out of here, I would. Even though I've invested 43 years of my life in this neighborhood, I've grown up in this neighborhood and I would make that sacrifice, because I really worry about him. I think most parents would, when they see their child going through that."

It's time for Big Coal and Big Oil to stop making us so sick. Polluters are targeting our basic health protections. Join our Stop Polluters campaign and tell President Obama that we need strong safeguards to protect our health from polluters.

Read more about pollution:
Coal Pollution Will Kill 13,200 Americans This Year & Cost $100 Billion in Additional Health Care Bills
Forget About Climate Change, Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions Has 'Major Direct Health Benefits'
5 Leading US Health Groups Oppose Efforts to Block EPA Regulating Greenhouse Gases

When Pollution Becomes a Public Health Issue
Rosa Perea spends many days struggling to help her five-year old son, Yousef Abdallah, control his severe asthma. Her Chicago neighborhood is home to numerous polluting industries—most of which emit soot and smog pollution.

Related Content on Treehugger.com