Living with California's dirty air

Pati Calzada and her son
© Sierra Club

Pati Calzada and her six-year-old son live in Colton, California, where the air is dangerous to breathe. According to the American Lung Association's State of the Air report, Pati’s neighborhood has more ozone pollution (smog) in the air than anywhere else in the country. Smog pollution attacks lung tissue, which can cause serious health problems for those who breathe it.

Thanks to the poor air quality, Pati, her son and nearly 1.5 million people in and near her county currently suffer from asthma and respiratory problems.

"There are times when I catch myself gasping for air," said Pati. "I don't know how to explain it, but I can feel the difference in the air when it's polluted."

Families who have deeply rooted themselves in this community are finding that even if you are not genetically susceptible to lung disease, chances are that the pollution in the air will change that. So long as pollution problems persist, related illnesses continue to be passed down from generation to generation. If you breathe bad air and have asthma, it is very likely your kids and your grandchildren will too.

For Pati's son, the asthma has put the brakes on his once active toddler life. "He used to be able to run non-stop, play soccer for hours without taking a break. Now he'll stop and I'll listen to his breathing. I'll hear him wheezing and have to give him his medicine."

These are the moments that shake Pati to her core. As a mother, "He is a six-year-old filled with questions - he'll ask me why he has to take medicine to play. It's those types of questions that break my heart."

Pati agreed to let a camera follow her and her son for a day to see what it's like to have asthma.

The increased asthma attacks brought on by the region's poor air quality has also made Pati into an activist. Her boyfriend took her along to Sierra Club rallies and protests centered around the demand for better air, and she got hooked.

"I felt surrounded by great people with a big passion for a greater environment," said Pati. "The Sierra Club has opened my eyes to a better world - a world that I want my son to see."

Now Pati is demanding that the State of California do what is necessary to meet air quality standards, which they haven’t met since the inception of the Clean Air Act over four decades ago. She has also marched with Nevada's Moapa Band of Paiutes against the Reid Gardner coal plant and learned about their health struggles due to coal pollution. She's happy to be so engaged on public health and environmental issues now and loves teaching others how they can make a difference.

"We need to talk to our youth and educate them well. If they don't work for a better world, they and their children will pay the consequences. I'm here to do what I can so my son can see a better world - and I want him to do the same for future generations."

If you live in California, join Pati and her son in the fight for clean air by contacting your local air district. Email them at and ask them to create a clean air plan that makes the air safe to breathe.

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