Since they were infants, the four LaRae Cantley children have been constantly in and out of the emergency room, because they can’t breathe.
Both have breathing problems, and two have asthma. Cantlie always carried instructions for breathing therapy and regularly went to the hospital to treat her children.
“I thought this was normal,” she said. “I thought every baby had it, or every parent had it in the early stages of a newborn’s life.”
The South Los Angeles family lives in a low-income black and brown residential community. The apartment does not have air conditioning, and hot weather can exacerbate asthma and respiratory diseases. On hot sunny days, her 12-year-old son Kings can’t play outside or join PE
“He can’t do some physical activities in the sun,” Cantlie said of her son, who has bronchiectasis, a chronic condition in which the airways widen leading to coughing and fluid buildup. Likewise, her daughter was forced to run due to her asthma.
Lanisha Pounds, also a mom in Los Angeles, said her daughter had frequent bouts of breathing problems as a child.
“It was hard seeing her little body unable to breathe,” she said.
Their children are not alone.
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Black and Hispanic children disproportionately suffer from asthma. Both are twice as likely than white children to be hospitalized with asthma. Black children are four times more likely than Hispanics to die from the disease. Studies have shown that poorer black children are more likely than white children to be admitted to a pediatric intensive care unit with “critical and near-fatal” childhood asthma.
As climate change brings record temperatures to the nation, experts warn of worsening asthma and respiratory conditions among children of color.
Higher temperatures mean higher levels of ozone, a gas formed by burning fossil fuels. This is a particular concern for inner-city children in previously planned neighborhoods due to the urban heat island effect, which occurs when certain neighborhoods are exposed to more pollution. These communities also have less green space. All of these factors make these areas hotter than other parts of the city, explains Dr. Bridget Jones, an allergist and pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.
She said, “Extreme heat is one of the factors that cause or cause asthma, especially asthma exacerbation.” “On days when temperatures are high, and there is a rise in ozone levels due to higher temperatures, there is an increase in asthma exacerbations, especially among children.”
Jones sees this as more common among her black and Hispanic patients.
“As we continue to see a rise in temperature and more extreme temperatures, it will only make more frequent asthma attacks worse,” she said.
Pediatrician and hospital physician Dr. Aaron Bernstein is interim director of the Harvard University Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment. The reasons, he said, are starkly due to structural disparities in housing, wealth and access to health care.
“It is painfully obvious the systematic discrimination when I have to take care of children,” Bernstein said. “We still live with decisions that were made on the basis of race.”
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This disparity, he said, is one of the many direct consequences of past federal policies “promoted” such as red lines that systematically rejected home-ownership loans to black Americans, turning families into underinvestment slums.
“Any parents in this country would absolutely want this for their children: not having to spend a day in the hospital, not having to struggle with breathing, not having all these consequences of asthma,” he said. “And now, parents of children of color are dealing with that, with no choice on their part.”
This family prompted Dr. Renee Salas, an emergency physician and Yerby Fellow at Harvard Center, to intersect climatic, environmental, and health disparities. A 4-year-old girl from the Boston metro area was rushed to the emergency room in Salas for the third time in one week for asthma attacks.
“Her mother was really by herself,” she said. “I’ll never forget that she looked at me and said, ‘I do whatever they ask me to do, but it just didn’t get better. “
Perusing the girl’s medical records, Salas learned that she lives in a red striped neighborhood near a highway.
“My patient was in a situation where I was putting BandAid on a bullet wound to try to stabilize her disease, but then sent her back into an environment where there was air pollution, ground-level ozone, and pollen, all of which have roots that burn fossil fuels.
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The American Thoracic Society has found that when children are exposed to long-term, that is, traffic-related air pollution, they are more likely to develop asthma.
“But we also know that neighborhoods that were previously marked in red are also hotter than other neighborhoods,” she said. “This has major implications for asthma because ozone, an air pollutant, can form at higher rates in hotter environments.”
There are clear associations between those factors and asthma, Salas said.
Dr. Stephanie Holm, a pediatrician and co-director of the Western States Environmental Children’s Health Specialty Unit, said children’s bodies, like 4-year-old Salas’ patient, cannot regulate heat as well as adults’ bodies.
Holm said more awareness is needed that heat can make health conditions worse — and that the risks are not equal.
more:Experts say climate change and heat waves are affecting heart health. This is why this puts people of color at greater risk.
“A lot of people, if you say, ‘It’s a hot day, what should you worry about a child? “They might consider making sure they’re hydrated, or making sure they’re not getting too much sun,” she said. Both, of course, are important. But (they) may not consider the fact that it can make underlying health conditions worse. This includes asthma.”
Laonis Quinn, a registered nurse and certified trainer of asthma in Detroit, started the Anthony J. Chapman Foundation after her son Anthony died of an asthma attack. He was 23 years old, and he suffered from the disease his whole life. She lacked specialized care when he was kicked out of his mother’s insurance at age 21, at which point “we became sick in the emergency room,” she said.
“It took me a very, very, very long time to say his name out loud,” she said. “I direct the pain into what I’m doing now.”
With the foundation, you provide free nebulizers, spacers, mattress covers, and educational materials about treating asthma and its triggers.
Back in Los Angeles, Paula Torrado Plazas, an air quality and toxicants policy analyst at Physicians for Social Responsibility, said during hearings with parents, many told her there was no shade or tree canopies to mitigate the heat while taking their children to school.
She remembered her Hispanic grandmother raising her grandchildren in South Los Angeles. During heat waves, she does not allow her children to play outside because they have asthma. They live in an apartment without air conditioning near an oil and gas facility, which worsens the air quality.
“A few days ago, it was kind of raining, but it was very hot,” said Plazas. “She mentioned how the fumes and smells intensified, and they felt locked in their home.”
Cantlie, who is also a community activist, said she wishes her children and others would have equal opportunities to breathe fresh air – “to be able to choose what they dream of doing – and to be able to have the freedom to do so without being constrained by their inability to breathe.”