By Elias Rodriguez
It was a hazy and hot day as I sat in my grade school New York City classroom. Suddenly, everyone’s attention was drawn to my classmate’s wheezing and labored breathing. Àngel was one of the biggest kids in our class, but he was clearly in distress and the memory of his pain is vivid. I now understand that my friend was having an asthma attack. Thankfully, our teacher knew precisely what to do and she had his inhaler inside her desk and ready.
Our Manhattan public school was located adjacent to a major highway known as the FDR Drive, which snakes up Manhattan’s eastside near the Williamsburg Bridge. The combination of high population density, cars, trucks and industrial activity was a recipe for dismal air quality.
Àngel and many of my inner-city cohort shared a Puerto Rican ancestry. To this day, I remain puzzled by the disproportionately high asthma rate among Latinos. Latinos are 30 percent more likely to go to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic Whites. For reasons that are not fully understood, Puerto Ricans have double the asthma rate as compared to the overall Latino population.
While asthma rates have increased in the general population over the past two decades- what accounts for the alarming disparities? Are the reasons economic? Do groups in the lower income strata demonstrate more adverse health effects as a result of limited resources and less access to quality medical care? Is the reason pegged to location? Does the propensity of certain groups to seek jobs in metropolitan areas lead to higher incidence in geographic clusters? Could culture be a culprit? Spanish was the first language of my parents and there are links between limited-English proficiency and barriers to quality care. We’d love to hear your theories. Solving this socio-economic-medical mystery is imperative for all of us since it is estimated that medical expenses associated with asthma cost a staggering $50 billion every year.
The explanation for these asthma rates among demographic groups is complex and multidisciplinary. The good news is that we have the power to take proactive steps. May is Asthma Awareness Month and it’s a great opportunity to remind people that having an Asthma Action Plan is one of the key tips EPA offers to people who live with asthma. EPA also encourages people to check local air quality at Air Now. The site uses a color-coded system to display whether pollutants exceed air quality standards and indicates the air’s impact on different populations. Give it a try at airnow.gov. Grab a tool. Get a plan and Adelante.
About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.