Childhood asthma and the air we breathe

Published on
July 25, 2012
I’m an education writer. My job at the Oakland Tribune is, mostly, to report on the local public school systems and the people in them.

But the context in which children live -- and in the case of this project, breathe -- often comes into my reporting, too. It has to.

Asthma is one of those realities. It’s the most common chronic childhood disease in the United States, affecting about 14 percent of children under 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Still, in some places, and for some children, it’s even more common -- or, at least, based on emergency department visit data, much scarier.

The California Public Health Department collects annual data on the rate of emergency department visits of children, by zip code. I looked at the top 10 from 2009; four of them were in the Oakland area. One is by the Oakland airport and busy Interstate; one is in West Oakland, near a busy port and the same freeway; and two were in practically adjacent neighborhoods -- one in the tiny town of Emeryville, along the Bay, and another in northwest Oakland.

This week, I’m in Los Angeles with photojournalist Alison Yin for a National Health Journalism Fellowship. Yesterday, we toured Wilmington, Calif., a neighborhood right up against the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, several oil refineries and freeways. I was struck by the similarities between this place and the Bay Area’s industrial corridor -- for instance, how close schools and homes were to these sources of heavy pollution. Anabell Romero, a Wilmington native, USC graduate student and health blogger, was on the bus with us; her narrative about the tension in the community between economics (good jobs with good health benefits) and health (high rates of asthma and other health problems associated with polluted air) was equally powerful.

While Wilmington’s residents are mostly Latino, West Oakland -- the Oakland area closest to the port -- is predominately African-American. As I researched our project proposal, I learned that 20 percent of black California children have been diagnosed with asthma, compared to 14 percent of all children in the state, according to UCLA’s 2009 California Health Interview Survey. According to the CDC, the rate of diagnosis for black children in the United States -- 21.2 percent -- was 33 percent higher in 2010 than it was just nine years earlier (15.9 percent). For children of all races, it grew by 7 percent during that time period.

Why did the rate grow so quickly? Why is the lung disease more pervasive in the African American community than it is for the general population, and what is being done about it? Alison and I look forward to exploring these questions and shedding light on what we discover.