We Have to Address Pollution, Climate, and Barriers to Care

By Ben Jealous

“Please Kyla, stop running, you can’t run like the other children. You have to worry about your asthma.”

That’s what Kyla Peck’s aunt who babysat for her would tell her growing up.
This week is World Asthma Day. As we look at Kyla’s story, it is worth remembering her story is all too familiar among the 27 million people living with asthma in the US (about one in 12 Americans) – especially those living in cities like Chicago, where Kyla is from.

Kyla says, “My mother has told me about the countless experiences she has had with me in the hospital from an early age. One of the most memorable moments of me being in the hospital for my asthma came more recently. I was home in Chicago from college, maybe 20 years old, and I had a really, really bad asthma attack. I was hospitalized for maybe about 12 hours. Then I received the bill. Even after insurance paid their part, I owed about $500.

I was in college; I had no money. It was my first experience dealing with the healthcare system knowing that I’d have to pay for my own care. It was stressful, not only having to navigate the asthma attack but having to learn to navigate my own financial situation living with this illness.”

A 2020 survey by Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Public Health found that 16 percent of Chicago families have a child who had been diagnosed with asthma. That is well above both the 11 percent rate across Illinois and 12 percent rate nationwide.

Life in Chicago comes with exposure to an extraordinary number of asthma’s causes and triggers. Like in other large cities, emissions from gas-powered vehicles contribute heavily to overall air pollution. Chicago is a national crossroads of commercial transport by rail, road, and airplane.

There is historically no shortage of power plant and industrial pollution, including fine particulate matter. Ground-level ozone, a major respiratory irritant, is a problem in the region (ozone is formed when certain industrial pollutants interact with the air). And the northern Midwest and Great Lakes region are heavily impacted by the smoke from Canadian wildfires that are more common each summer.

A lot of these triggers are problems for people all over the country. Last summer, smoke pollution from wildfires in Canada blanketed much of the US, including Washington, DC where Kyla now lives.

“The impact of that wildfire smoke from Canada was significant. It was so bad, I remember I was in my car and my eyes were burning. I was driving in my car with a mask on because I couldn’t breathe the air.”

The wildfire smoke is expected to return this summer. It will be especially bad for residents of Chicago and others in the upper Midwest. And experts expect this fire season to be even worse than last year’s because of “zombie fires” that have remained burning in Canadian forests throughout the winter under the snowpack.

Another important trigger for people living with asthma is seasonal allergies. One of the less discussed public health impacts of climate change is that both the length and severity of allergy season are on the rise. Among other factors, warming temperatures and higher quantities of carbon in the air contribute to various trees and plants producing more pollen and producing it for longer periods of time.

One recent study North America’s pollen seasons from 1990 to 2018 found climate was a primary driver of allergy season lasting an average of 20 days longer. The same study found the concentration of pollen also went up by 21 percent over that time.

To mark World Asthma Day – and throughout May, which is Asthma Awareness Month – we should focus on preventing asthma attacks with the most comprehensive approach possible. That means making sure asthma medicines are in schools and co-pays for inhalers remain low – initiatives being pursued by organizations like the Respiratory Health Association and some members of the Illinois legislature. It means educating the public about asthma. It means tackling the climate crisis, which worsens allergy season and the prevalence of wildfires. And it means addressing all sources of air pollution from combustion engine vehicles to dirty power sources like coal and gas.

At age 14, Nathan from Skokie was one of many Illinois youth living with asthma who teamed up with the Respiratory Health Association and other groups to help pass Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021. He said, “It affects your everyday life all the time; it’s not just when you take your inhaler, you’re always thinking about it and it’s always affecting you.”

We owe it to Nathan, Kyla, and the tens of millions of children and adults in the US living with asthma to solve the pressing environmental problems making their lives harder.

Ben Jealous is the Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email