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Summer's Gag Gift

  En español
Por Javier Sierra

Summer is around the corner and it's got a gag gift in hand.

It's a gag that will make life very hard for hundreds of thousands of Hispanics, especially children. The gag gift of summer is asthma and, in the Hispanic community, it has become an epidemic.

With sunny days and high temperatures, especially in urban areas, the atmosphere turns into the proverbial witch's brew, where the toxic particles that foster respiratory diseases like asthma thrive. In cities all over the country, Los Angeles being one of the most notorious example, gigantic toxic, brown clouds loom all summer long.

This toxic potion breeds asthma, a disease that afflicts 17 million people in the US, and a disproportionate percentage in the Hispanic community. But it's Hispanic children who face the gravest risk.

According to the American Lung Association, asthma incidence among Hispanic children is 250% higher than that of white children and 150% higher than that of African-American children. One third of those Hispanic kids do not know they have asthma or lack health insurance. Without treatment asthma worsens and can even be deadly. In a survey of more than 9,000 mothers representing an array of racial backgrounds, researchers concluded that Hispanic mothers were most likely to have children with asthma. At the children's hospital in Fresno, CA, the country's second most polluted area, half of all asthma hospitalizations in 2001 were of Hispanic kids.

This asthma epidemic is an environmental injustice. Eighty percent of Hispanics live in the 437 counties where air quality does not meet minimum federal standards, whereas 57% of the Anglo-Saxon population live in those communities. In Los Angeles, 60% of the residents who live close to 81 industrial plants are Hispanic, while only 18% of them are white. Students at the oldest and worst kept schools tend to be either Hispanic or African-American. Even when Hispanic schools are new, they are more likely to be built on or near toxic sites, some of the kinds of facilities that foster diseases like asthma.

But there is a lot that parents of Hispanic children can do to alleviate this crisis. Dr. Kevin Hamilton, director of the Asthma Program at Fresno's Community Health Center, warns that the air is the most dangerous after 3 pm and does not get safer until well after dark.

"Specially during the summer time, I recommend that people stay inside or if not inside, they should try not to do any running around or heavy work outside that would make you take rapid deep breaths which is really bad for kids under 14 and adults over 65," Dr. Hamilton advises.

Remember these tips because there are more of those gigantic brown clouds on their way. And they seem to be coming from the chimney at the White House.

The Bush Administration has introduced a bill in Congress, cruelly named "Clear Skies," which is custom made to the specifications of some of the country's worst polluters. The bill would allow power plants-the United States' largest source of air pollution-to continue poisoning the atmosphere and worsening the asthma epidemic.

According to Sierra Club estimates, which used federal government methods, the bill would cause 100,000 additional early deaths and 2 million additional asthma attacks in the next 17 years. Likewise, it would save power plants $3.5 billion and increase health care costs by $61 billion.

And guess what community would be the most punished if the bill becomes law.

There is one way of taking the gag gift out of summer's hand, besides following Dr. Hamilton's advice. Register and vote, and when you do go to vote, keep in mind who protected you from the polluters and who protected the polluters.

Javier Sierra es columnista del Sierra Club. El Sierra Club es la mayor y más antigua organización de base medioambiental en Estados Unidos.

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