The Tyranny of Asthma: How the EPA Can Help Fight This Scourge on Latinos

Fear is Pati Calzada's constant companion. Her six-year old son, Abraham, has asthma, and his frequent attacks fill them both with terror and anguish.

"He gets scared and calls me, 'Mommy!' And I can hear him wheezing, and he asks me, 'why can't I breathe?' And then I have to calm him down because I can't give him his medicine while he's panicking," says Pati, who also has asthma.

The illness, which was diagnosed a few months ago, has completely changed Abraham's life.

"He's a very active child, he loves running," Pati says. "And now he cannot run even half the time he used to be able to run because he cannot breathe, and it really scares me."

The cause of her misfortune is an undesirable neighbor called smog, also known as ground level ozone, a corrosive pollutant that causes abrasions in the lungs comparable to sunburn. Smog is formed by the effect of sunlight and heat on fossil fuel pollutants from vehicles, factories and power plants. In Colton, California, where Pati and Abraham live, there is an abundance of these ingredients.

"There is a freeway right in front of us," says Pati. "To our right are the train tracks, behind us is the train station, and a few miles from here, we have the dirtiest power plant in California [the Mountainview Generation Station in Redlands]."

According to the American Lung Association, the barrio where the Calzadas live in San Bernardino County has the highest smog level in the whole country.

"In our county, 1.5 million people have asthma, including half of our children," says Pati. "The problem is we can't afford to live anywhere else. We either have a roof over our heads or have to live on the streets somewhere else where the air is clean."

But facing this cruel dilemma is unnecessary. The federal government needs to improve the national ozone standard from 75 ppb (parts per billion) to 60 ppb. Recently, a committee of experts chartered by the EPA concluded that the current smog standard is insufficient to protect public health.

The experts determined that even a 70ppb standard would continue to cause "adverse effects, such as decrease in lung function, increase in respiratory symptoms and increase in airway inflammation."

According to the EPA itself, every year, a 60ppb standard would prevent up to 12,000 premature deaths, 21,000 hospitalizations, and the loss of 2.5 million work and school days.

The last time this standard was updated was in 2008, when the Bush administration rejected the recommendations of another committee of experts, who warned of the terrible consequences of adopting a weak 75 ppb standard. The decision has caused massive suffering to families like Pati's.

For polluters and those who protect them, Pati has a few questions: "How many times have you actually woken in the middle of the night because your son or daughter cannot breath? What would happen if you were out of breath and could not reach your medicine? Are you aware of the consequences of your actions?"

The Clean Air Act requires that the EPA review the federal smog standards every five years, and a court order mandates that the agency issue a new proposal by December 14.

The health of millions of people, such as Pati and Abraham, is at stake. The EPA must establish a new 60ppb smog standard to help end the tyranny of asthma.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC