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Poor Air Quality May Have More Impact on the Health of Vulnerable Communities

By Courtney Curtis, Marymanita Mensah, Johnathan Morales, Daniel Oloju, Shaunavahn Reid, Janae Wilson and Anthony Yang

Youthcast Media Group®

Maranda Ward, center, with members of DC Central Kitchen, FRESHFARM Foodprints and Community of Hope at a community organizing event in November (Courtesy of Maranda Ward).

Global warming is a global problem, but it is felt more acutely in some places than others.

Maranda Ward says her neighbors in southeast Washington suffer disproportionately from poor air quality and scorching summertime temperatures — and, last summer, from the smog caused by the Canadian wildfires.

“Climate change impacts the world, not just southeast DC,” says Ward, an assistant professor and director of equity at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “But the reason there remains a disproportionate impact on historically disinvested neighborhoods is because of structural inequity.”

An example of that: Urban metropolitan areas typically have more concrete than they do green spaces.

“Given how climate change has increased temperatures overall, these concrete jungles are especially overheated and exacerbated by emissions from cars and trucks, industry, and poorly circulated housing conditions,” Ward says. “This is why we should care about what is the relationship between urban America and climate change.”

Asthma is far more common in Washington’s Ward 7, where Ward lives, as well as in Ward 8. These two wards have the lowest median income in Washington as well as the highest rates of children living below the poverty line. Kids living in Ward 8 have 20 to 25 times the number of emergency department visits than children who live in higher-income neighborhoods, according to data collected by Children’s National Health System. Children in Ward 8 are ten times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than other kids, the study found. People living in Wards 7 and 8 also have the highest rates of smoking, diabetes and stroke in the district.

“Despite the rich history and culture of communities East of the Anacostia, these neighborhoods have been historically dis-invested and impacted by environmental racism,” Ward said.

Those who have jobs involving manual labor outside are more likely to be affected by bad air than white-collar workers — and people who work in those jobs are more likely to be people of color living in dis-invested neighborhoods.

“Minority and low-income communities are always at risk of climate-related maladies just by going about their daily lives,” Ward says. She calls that a form of environmental racism.

“You can track and see places where more people of color are impacted,” she says.

“People with less money — who are forced to live near landfills and highways and freeways going through their neighborhoods — are going to have high air and water pollution.”

Public health officials around the country tracked the daily Air Quality Index (AQI) during last summer’s wildfires and recommended that people at higher health risk stay indoors or use N95 masks if they had to go out. (The masks may offer some protection from breathing in harmful particles generated by the smoke from the fires.)

Jono Anzalone, executive director of the Climate Initiative, called it “another wake-up call for communities on the impacts of climate change.”

Seniors, pregnant women, and people living with respiratory illnesses and cardiovascular disease are at particular risk when the air quality is bad. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reports that children are more likely to be affected by air pollutants because their airways are small and still developing, and they breathe in more air relative to their body weight than do adults.

There may also be a link between poor air quality and an increased risk of developing mental health issues, including depression, according to a study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Anzalone says these sorts of conditions will only worsen as climate change does. So, what can be done? This is a global problem in need of global solutions, but Ward says there are some meaningful things that can be done at the local level.

Community-based organizations, she says, “will need to partner with advocacy and policy groups to change legislation that determines city plans, housing developments, opportunities for recreation and green space, as well as the systems that maintain environmental racism.”

She applauds the work done by the 11th Street Bridge Park, a community-based organization in Washington, for modeling “what equity looks like in community development.”

The 11th Street group sought community input and then authored what Ward calls “an equitable development plan for the mayor's capital investment in a new bridge park connecting the neighborhoods of Anacostia with Navy Yard in ways that won't displace Ward 7 and 8 residents.”

The plan calls for cleaning the Anacostia River and securing contractors from the neighborhoods for the buildout. all the while maintaining connections to the Indigenous and Black history of Washington.

Curtis, a former YMG intern, graduated from DC’s Bard High School Early College with an associate’s degree. Mensah is a senior at DC’s Banneker High School, Oloju and Yang attend Kenwood High School in Essex, Maryland, Reid and Wilson are 11th grade students and Morales is a recent graduate at Weaver High School in Hartford, Connecticut. The students participated in a writing bootcamp on climate and health.


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