Residents Struggle to Breathe Easy in the City

Columnist Brittany Thomas describes the issue of air pollution.

When you breathe in ground level ozone, the damage it does to the lungs is equivalent to  that of a sun burn to the skin. Because Philadelphia is in noncompliance with properly restricting the amounts released, it’s not surprising to find out that the rate of hospitalization for asthma is much higher here than in the rest of the region, state and nation.

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Illustration MARIA ZANKEY TTN

Another major flaw in our city’s management of air quality is that zoning laws are extremely outdated, which makes it permissible for a number of industrial facilities to be in close proximity to residential areas, often within just a block of houses and schools.

“If you look at each facility in isolation, which is what the [Environmental Protection Agency] does and what the state and the city does, each facility is permitted to meet a certain standard that the city or really ultimately the EPA has determined is protective of human health and the environment,” said Adam Cutler, the director of the Public Health and Environmental Justice Clinic at the Public Interest Law Center. “Each facility is looked at as if it were standing alone, and they don’t look at the cumulative impact of the clustering of multiple facilities in a relatively small area.”

The Community Health Database reports that the asthma rate among Philadelphia children is 13.7 percent versus 9.1 percent in the suburban counties of Southeast Pennsylvania. It also reports that 29.2 percent of Philadelphia children with asthma are in fair or poor health, compared to only 17.3 percent of children with asthma in the suburbs.

In the Huntington Park community of North Philadelphia, a staggering one in four children have asthma – one of the highest rates nationally – according to a documentary created by Drexel University’s Earle Mack School of Law called, “Reclaiming Huntington Park.”

“Soot pollution causes about 5,000 premature deaths in Pennsylvania annually,” Philadelphia Environmental Health reported. “At this rate, air pollution ranks as the third highest risk factor for premature death, behind smoking and poor diet/physical inactivity.”

Census data shows that the city average for citizens living below the federal poverty line is 22.9 percent, but Huntington Park is at 46.8 percent. Not just Huntington Park, but many other economically distressed neighborhoods like the Kensington and Frankford districts get the brunt of the pollution because they’re in such close proximity to many major industrial facilities.

“It’s certain that these communities have been the go to location for polluting facilities,” Cutler said. “Polluting facilities that want to open up a new facility look to these areas because the land is cheaper, and because many people would say that the population in those areas, which tend to be less educated and feel less apart of the political process and have less political power, that they won’t object as strenuously as you would find in an affluent suburban area, for example.”

There are, however, local organizations like the Philadelphia Allies Against Asthma coalition that work to educate children and parents with an array of services, activities and help lines. They are focusing their efforts particularly on the areas of the city with large Latino and African-American populations who are receiving fragmented care, to enhance their treatment options.

In regard to the connection between air pollution and public health, there is little to no data available for the average citizen to see what health problems are more prominent in certain neighborhoods.

Temple cross country team members Katherine Frank, a sophomore psychology major, and Karrie Finn, a junior biology and Spanish major, both reported noticing a difference in the efficiency of their breathing on certain days.

“The weather definitely affects it,” Frank said. “Whenever the weather changes, or days when the air feels heavier, it’s harder.”

Frank said she developed asthma around the end of high school. Since she moved from Chester, Pa., she has had multiple work-induced attacks while running that were serious enough to force her to forfeit for the day.

All of the runners said the team acknowledges and discusses air quality and how it changes with the weather, but their team has never been educated on environmental health or ground-level ozone to understand why it’s harder to breathe on hot days.

According to the EPA’s website, ground level ozone development is influenced by temperature, wind speed and direction and the time of day. EnvironmentalLiteracy.org also reports that when there’s more sunlight and temperatures, the levels rise, so peak ozone levels are in the late afternoon and formation is lowest in the morning.

Sophomore music therapy major Deirdre McFarlane also said she notices a difference in her breathing at the beginning of the cross country season.

“I live at the Jersey shore in the summer and I guess [the air] there is really good,” McFarlane said. “When we come back, I have to get conditioned because it’s harder to breathe.”

The EPA’s website also states: “Ozone can irritate your respiratory system, causing you to start coughing, feel an irritation in your throat and/or experience an uncomfortable sensation in your chest. Ozone can aggravate asthma, and can inflame and damage cells that line your lungs. Ozone may also aggravate chronic lung diseases such as emphysema and bronchitis and reduce the immune system’s ability to fight off bacterial infections in the respiratory system. Lastly, ozone may cause permanent lung damage. These effects can be worse in children and exercising adults.”

It’s not only ground-level ozone, but an array of dangerous chemicals that are having a noticeable health impact on Philadelphians. It’s time for Philadelphia to begin holding polluting industrial facilities better accountable for their emissions and implementing cleaner business practices. Not only would it have a visible impact by reducing smog, it would lower asthma rates and make the quality of life better all around.

“I love being in a city, but it gets to me when I don’t run as efficiently as I can,” Finn said. “And if I can’t breathe then I can’t enjoy the activity that I love as much. It hits me mentally too. I definitely wish the situation was improved.”

Brittany Thomas can be reached at brittany.thomas@temple.edu.

1 Comment

  1. In 2006, the city dug up a known to be contaminated brownfield within feet of my home. Many politicians involved and they could do anything they wanted to a woman alone. I’ve been in hospital several times from exposure. They hid the removal of contaminated dirt from the neighbors. I’m still very ill and displaced from my home. I’m terrified. I’ve been threatened and burglarized and lied about in order to cover up the corruption and environmental injustice I found out about. Adam Cutler nor anyone will help me because of the political corruption involved. They left me to die and stole my life. See the website for the you youtube Toxic Philadelphia. I will be speaking at the May 24 EPA hearing on air toxics and tell what the symptoms are really like.

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