By Priyanka Pathak
Growing up in the United States as a woman of color and an immigrant gave me a strong sense of wanting to make the world a more just place. In my academic and social life, I was constantly having to challenge this idea that people who were different like me might expect to be treated unfairly. I very naturally identified with people different from me who experienced discrimination and sought change. Today, in the environmental health field, I have the privilege of collaborating with community members and local organizations working hard to address major environmental health disparities faced by residents of the U.S.-Mexico Border region.
Imperial County, in southern California, bears the distinction of having the highest hospitalization rate for childhood asthma in the state. For those whose asthma is triggered by dust, everyday activities become risky. And dust is plentiful in these desert farming communities.
Fernanda, an outgoing eleventh-grader, goes to school in Imperial Valley and fears an asthma attack daily. She was diagnosed with asthma three years ago. Fernanda knows that her asthma problems are caused by pollution, especially outdoor air pollution. Living with this chronic health condition has significantly impacted her life. Fernanda cannot participate in gym class, since running outdoors can cause her to have an attack. Her asthma limits how often she can attend school.
Each time she is hospitalized, Fernanda misses about two days of school. In April, Fernanda went to the emergency room five times and was absent from school a third of the month. Her frequent absence is not unique among kids with asthma. Every year, asthma results in 10 million missed school days. Schools with a high population of low-income students tend to experience even more asthma-related absences.
While hospitalized, Fernanda’s doctor told her about the Imperial Valley Child Asthma Program (IVCAP), which has been providing individualized home visits for low-income families for over a decade.
IVCAP’s home visits include several hours of bilingual counseling by two community health workers. Graciela Ruiz advises parents and guardians on administering asthma medication correctly, while Lourdes Salazar conducts a home walk-through and identifies possible asthma triggers.
By the final home visit, a majority of parents and guardians report feeling confident in being able to manage their child’s asthma. Among the 106 families they served in the past year, only one child has needed to go to the hospital.
IVCAP will continue to tackle childhood asthma among low-income Imperial County residents, thanks to grants from EPA’s Border 2020 Program. Currently, we in EPA’s Pacific Southwest Regional Office are working together with local, regional, and national organizations to help identify funding opportunities for organizations that provide in-home asthma services.
I think we can all agree that no child should ever have to fear going outside or sacrifice their education because of air pollution. I encourage everyone, not just those with asthma, to learn about how to prevent asthma attacks. Homes, schools, and childcare centers can be made safer by controlling exposure to common asthma triggers such as dust mites, pest and animal allergens, mold and moisture, chemical irritants in consumer products, wood smoke, outdoor air pollution, and others. You can be part of the solution: learn more about controlling asthma at www.epa.gov/asthma.
About the Author: Priyanka Pathak is the U.S. EPA Air Division Community Environmental Health Coordinator for the Pacific Southwest, home to 50 million people in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, the Pacific Islands and 148 tribal nations.