November 2, 2007

Fires Add to Urban Asthma

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media

Editor’s Note: For thousands of children and elderly the Southern California wildfires posed yet another dire health threat to a community that has long suffered higher asthma rates from poor air quality and pollution.

Singer Marie Osmond drew sympathy when she fainted twice during a recent segment of ABC TV’s Dancing with the Stars. Osmond blamed the wildfires raging throughout Southern California as the culprit that caused her to momentarily lose consciousness on the show. A chagrined Osmond explained that the air quality is poor, but she quickly recovered.

Osmond’s fainting spell on the popular dance show was the stuff of celebrity gossip. But for thousands of children and older adults – mostly black and Latino – in South and Central Los Angeles, the wildfires posed yet another dire health threat to a community that has long suffered higher asthma rates from poor air quality and pollution.

The wildfires have severely increased the risk of hospitalization and even death for those who already suffer from chronic respiratory conditions. Scientists have long pointed to a direct connection between bad air quality and the increase in chronic respiratory ailments in poor inner-city neighborhoods. The wildfires tossed into the air a lethal ozone stew of carbon dioxide, water vapor, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other chemicals.

The grim statistics on the toll that asthma and other respiratory ailments are taking on the poor and minorities are appalling.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks are six times more likely than whites to die from asthma, and are nearly four times more likely than whites to be hospitalized for treatment. Latinos and American Indians also have significantly higher rates of asthma than their white counterparts.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the poor. Poor air quality in inner cities also has increased coughing spasms, bronchitis and tuberculosis. Even without the dire air quality threat posed by the wildfires to residents in South Los Angeles, children in these neighborhoods are at great risk. An estimated one in four children in the United States is exposed to ozone levels that exceed the federal limits, and the majority of these children reside in poor urban neighborhoods.

President Bush sent a phalanx of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FE-MA) and Homeland Security officials, federal relief workers and firefighting equipment to Southern California. He authorized millions for spending on relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared that the state would commit full resources to aid the fire victims.

But Bush and Schwarzenegger said little about the health damages of the fires to the children and elderly in South and Central Los Angeles – let alone what federal and state resources they would commit to footing medical costs for the treatment and prevention of any increase in respiratory ailments in those areas.

The instant the fires began to rage out of control, Los Angeles County officials issued necessary health alerts that warned residents to stay indoors and avoid strenuous exercise. They did not, however, indicate what steps they’d take to provide additional treatment facilities, medical personnel and medicines to deal with the increase in fire-related asthma attacks.

Many residents in South and Central Los Angeles didn’t wait for federal and state officials to act – they took matters into their own hands. They donned surgical masks for protection against the air, but this didn’t do much good. The air contaminant particles are so small that they pass through these filters. With each breath, the tiny chemical particles in the smoke burrow deep into the lungs, causing serious irritation and breathing problems.

But at least residents did recognize the severe risk, and were willing to take some action to try and protect their health. Bush and federal officials will pump millions into the rebuilding of homes and restoring personal property in Southern California. The big question is, will some of those dollars go toward meeting the needs of those in South Los Angeles who are hardest hit by fire-related respiratory illnesses? That’s not the stuff of glitzy photo-ops or sweeping declarations by politicians about beating back a crisis, but it is a matter of life and death for the poor.

New America Media Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black Ame-rica: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press).

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