Opening Immigrants’ Eyes to Environmental Health in American Homes

By Kate Gibson

ECOSS Staff member Sophorn Sim at an Indoor Air event

ECOSS Staff member Sophorn Sim at an Indoor Air event

When Sophorn Sim first moved to the United States from Cambodia, she finally received medical treatment for her chronic lung problems, a legacy of an early childhood illness and years spent in a forced labor camp run by the Khmer Rouge. Despite treatment, Sophorn’s condition got worse: she started coughing up blood and had to use her emergency inhaler up to three times a week.

Like many new immigrants and refugees, Sophorn faced new health hazards in the United States for which she was ill-prepared and that exacerbated her condition. Her first apartment was covered with mold, to which her family responded by cleaning the entire apartment with bleach and without proper precautions. Not accustomed to the notion of different soaps for different uses, she used laundry detergent for bathing and washing her hair, irritating her scarred lungs and contributing to her worsening condition.

Fahmo Abdulle goes over healthy home tips with members of the Somali community

Fahmo Abdulle goes over healthy home tips with members of the Somali community

Sophorn’s story, sadly, is not unique. Many refugee immigrant families, already living in areas with higher concentrations of poverty and less healthy conditions, are exposed to additional health hazards due to language and cultural barriers, lack of education, and misinformation spread through communities. For example, many immigrant families have settled in communities in close proximity to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the I-5 freeway that runs through Seattle, Superfund sites such as the Lower Duwamish River, mixed industrial/residential zones, and other potential sources of toxic exposures. Some new immigrants and refugees come from different climates and aren’t aware of proper ventilation practices for their new homes. Others have misconceptions about items that people who grew up in the United States take for granted, such as using Murphy’s Oil cleaner to wash dishes or to cook eggs, or confusing such items as Pine Sol with apple juice and Comet with parmesan cheese.

Thanks to an EPA Environmental Justice Small Grant, and with the assistance of the American Lung Association’s Master Home Environmentalist Program, the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle (ECOSS) significantly expanded its Healthy Homes program this year to reach more immigrants in a broader region. The program, coordinated by Sophorn, now an ECOSS staff member, is aimed at increasing awareness of indoor air quality among the Seattle area’s new immigrant and refugee populations—particularly Burmese, Bhutanese, and Somalian.

Through the program, ECOSS is reaching out to low-income, refugee, and new immigrant communities with free training, information, and green cleaning kits to improve indoor air quality and prevent harmful health effects associated with indoor air pollution. In partnership with the cities of SeaTac and Tukwila, ECOSS trained community members, who then planned outreach for their communities. In addition, they conducted home assessments, helping families in their homes with practical, low cost solutions.

For many participants, the information was eye opening. Often, new immigrants think of the United States as a healthy place with the best indoor air quality, and often assume that unsafe products would not be available in stores. For many, it can thus come as a surprise that training about product safety is even necessary.

Allan Kafley, who led outreach to the Bhutanese community, noted that many in his community had spent years in refugee camps where “pollution was much more obvious: dust in the air, particulates from at-home wool spinning businesses, and the charcoal briquettes used for cooking.” In sharp contrast, indoor air hazards in the United States—chemicals used in paint and cleaners, for example—are relatively invisible.

The ECOSS team distributes green cleaning kits

The ECOSS team distributes green cleaning kits

The expanded Healthy Homes program has been a tremendous success so far, reaching over 500 individuals in the first year through presentations and in-home assessments. To Allan, the in-home assessments are particularly effective, allowing outreach coordinators to be much more specific and concrete than through group presentations. “I can point directly to the car cleaning chemicals that a father stores in his kitchen and tell him about the danger it poses to his family. This way, we see immediate results.”

Members of the Somali community loved that baking soda and vinegar can be used to both cook and clean, and that they can save money with greener cleaning supplies. “One single mother of nine said she used to have to buy all kinds of cleaners: some for the dishes, the floor, clothes. Now she is using healthier cleaning products and has more money to spend on her children,” said Somali Coordinator, Fahmo Abdulle.

ECOSS looks forward to reaching more new immigrants and refugees through this important ongoing program, as well as through word of mouth.

About the Author: Kate Gibson is the Communications/Fund Development Associate for the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle.