As a certified asthma educator in Detroit, I know that every emergency room visit, hospitalization, and death as a result of asthma is preventable. Still, I’ve known kids to die from asthma attacks. I’ve watched a 5-year-old suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). I see kids like this every day suffer needlessly and live a compromised quality of life because of the air they breathe.

For almost seven years, I’ve educated families and classrooms about asthma risks and safety measures. I teach children with asthma about self-management, how to use inhalers and I teach parents about rescue medication. My goal is to see decreased emergency room visits and fewer ambulances sent to schools.

A recent study of asthma hospitalization in Wayne County found that Detroit zip codes had three to six times higher admission than the state as a whole. Wayne County has the highest number of pediatric asthma cases in the state.

Many families referred to me for asthma come from the downriver area of Detroit, namely Ecorse and River Rouge, where there is a shortage of doctors. Unlike other parts of Michigan, people in these communities have to learn about how to manage outdoor air because the heavy industrial pollution is making them sick.

The Michigan Department of Community Health has deemed this area the “Epicenter of Asthma Burden,” due to the health consequences these local families face. The American Lung Association reported in 2014 that Wayne County has the highest number of pediatric asthma cases in Michigan, coupled with the highest state population living in poverty.

Right now, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has an opportunity to clean up our air. The Environmental Protection Agency is requiring MDEQ to come up with a plan to address sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution in the area. A sizeable portion of Wayne County fails to meet the federal air quality standard for sulfur dioxide.

Exposure to sulfur dioxide in even very short time periods—such as five minutes—can have significant impacts to human health, including causing aggravation of asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Unfortunately for our communities, we live, work, attend school, and play in the neighbors where there are polluting facilities, which means exposure to SO2 is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There is only so much I can do. There are only so many windows I can close and air-conditioning vents I can adjust during my environmental walkthroughs of neighborhood homes. Ultimately, the EPA and MDEQ need to hold Detroit’s polluters accountable and protect these families and communities. I urge these agencies to create a strong plan to help stop pollution and lift the asthma burden off our chests and help us breathe.

Elizabeth Milton, formerly of Detroit’s Department of Health and Wellness, is a member of Detroit Alliance for Asthma Awareness.

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