Read the stories

Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan from USA

Wildfire season started early this year for us in Missoula, Montana. I was skipping rocks with my almost-four-year-old son at Rattlesnake Creek when a telltale haze began to blur the edges of the nearby hills—smoke from wildfires already burning in the region. It was July 10, much earlier than it’s supposed to be. But clearly, things won’t be as they’re supposed to anymore.

A climate change-fueled megadrought has been parching the West for years. We’d been told to expect more frequent and intense wildfires because of it, and this year, we really felt it. I can’t count the number of times the air quality tipped into the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” or “unhealthy” categories, as smoke from fires as far away as California and Oregon settled in our valley. Those were hard days. We didn’t want to expose our two kids (we also have an 18-month-old daughter) to the choking particulate matter hanging in the air, so holed up inside our house for days on end. My daughter would grab her shoes, carry them to the door, and cry, not understanding why we couldn’t play outside. My son would shout, “I hate smoke season!” when we once again tried to explain why he couldn’t go swimming, to the playground, to the farmers’ market.

Even with our three air purifiers running around the clock, I worried about the smoke that was undoubtedly seeping into my son’s preschool, the grocery store, the library, and anywhere else we tried to go. I pictured the smoke’s particulate matter piling up in my kids’ bloodstreams with every breath they took, setting off a dangerous inflammatory response in their little bodies. Every child deserves clean air to breathe and the chance to play freely outside. Too often, the children in the West this summer did not get that chance.

Some might say we just had a bad summer. But I’m afraid an awful smoke season is here to stay. Next summer could be worse—and summers after that will be worse, if we don’t take drastic action to eliminate fossil fuels and curb climate change right now. I’m afraid our beautiful home will be uninhabitable during my kids’ lifetimes. We can’t let that happen.

Dr Sarika Verma from India

Clean air is a necessity and not a luxury. We can buy bottled water but none of us can afford to buy bottled clean air. It's a pity that parents who buy their second third and fourth house to secure their children's future cannot reduce consumption to provide clean air for their children today. As a mother I crave clean blue skies and hope I can live to see the day when India has clear blue skies and good quality air throughout the year. The particulate matter smoke smog toxic chemicals effect our childrens lungs brains and all vital organs. How can most people shrug off the issue of air pollution. It effects each one of us.

Amy Jowers Blain from Australia

Canberra started 2020 with the worst air quality in the world. The air we were breathing was hazardous; well above dangerous levels. We evacuated from the terrifying bushfires at the coast, returning home to Canberra where our six year-old had to get ash out of her eye and we cleaned ash from our newborn’s ears. That night we masking-taped all the windows, putting up wet towels and sheets to block the doors and seal the house. The smoke still seeped in. Our daughter’s room was so smoky we couldn’t let her sleep there. My partner made an air purifier from a fan and vacuum cleaner filters because purifiers had sold out in Canberra. We bought plants that purify the air. We looked at our newborn and six year-old as we tried to ignore that it was still so smoky. It was 1am and we were checking the Fires Near Me and Air Quality data apps. It was hard not to think about the impact it would have on their tiny lungs. We were quarantined in a smoke-filled house. Face masks weren’t advised for under-12s given the impact on lung function, not that we could get them anyway, as it was too dangerous for posties to work. Nowhere felt safe. Schools were advised to make judgements on the air quality based on what they could see and smell – and still let children out and held assemblies outside, when you could see and smell smoke.

My pre-bed and early morning routine was obsessively checking the latest alerts on Emergency Services ACT social media and Air Quality data. At our lowest point, when we couldn’t stop the smoke coming in, we travelled to Sydney where the air quality was just ‘dangerous’ and not ‘hazardous’, and to breathe that air was sweet. We were lucky to have that choice, we could stay with friends and we could afford to buy an expensive air purifier that we know many Canberrans could not. We still wonder what damage did the smoke do our children’s lungs? We can see in our now eight year-old’s extreme anxiety around fires that the bushfires had a profound impact. We’ll never know about the damage we can’t see and when the next bush fires will fill Canberra with smoke.

Chiemezie from Nigeria

Recently I met a pregnant woman who was into cashew processing in one of my ethnographic works. As I spoke with her it turned out to be a very sad conversation. She had lost two of her children within twenty-eight days of their births and had had one still birth. In her current pregnancy, she looks ill and coughs recurrently. When I inquired about what was wrong, she could not give any answer because she had not been able to seek any medical attention. I asked when she started her cashew business, and she said “about ten years ago”, meaning the two children that died and the still birth all happened while she was in the business. Due to lack of death registration in this part of the world, the cause of the death of her children was not known. However, judging from the way she was coughing, I could tell that the woman has been inhaling a lot of smoke in the course of processing the cashew nuts. This smoke has been affecting her and her children causing her series of ill health and her children to die shortly after birth. The pathetic aspect of the conversation was that when I put it to her that smoke from her business could be responsible for her condition and the death of her children, she affirmed it, confirming that she usually coughs out black soot, especially while she is pregnant. My observations while talking with her confirmed her narration.

This is exactly what more than 2 billion rural dwellers who rely on firewood for heating and cooking go through in developing countries. Wood fuel releases a number of hazardous pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulphur, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. This predominantly inefficient cooking method is the leading cause of Indoor Air Pollution (IAP), which constitutes a lot of health issues and consequently deaths particularly for children and their mothers.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), four million women and children die prematurely in developing countries every year from cooking carbon emissions, a figure two times the total number of global deaths from Covid-19 in 2020. Nigeria experiences the highest number of in-door air pollution deaths in Africa, constituting about 79,000 deaths annually. In Nigeria, majority of the population lives in rural areas where the only method of cooking is the traditional three stone fire which requires huge amounts of firewood and produces large amount of smoke. In many households, poor ventilation arising from nonexistence of chimneys, exacerbates the effects of these pollutants, and women and children are often exposed to them at a significant level each day.

Exposure to fuel wood smoke has been implicated as a causal agent for respiratory and eye diseases, including cataract and blindness. As a result, a large number of women who do the cooking, as well as young children and infants in the vicinity of the cooking areas are mostly vulnerable. Deaths from acute lower respiratory infection in children younger than five years account for about 90% of the total number of deaths from indoor air pollution in Nigeria, exposing them to asthma, chronic lung conditions, heart attacks, strokes, headaches, fatigue, dizziness and nausea. Studies have attributed stillbirths, infant low birth weight, and adverse pregnancy outcomes in women to poor in-door air quality. Moreover, constant search for fuel wood represents a large burden for women, particularly in rural areas and makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment, abuse and rape amidst heavy insecurities and insurgencies. Understanding how women and children particularly girls are impacted by in-door air pollution in developing countries, should be a global concern.

Elizabeth Hauptman from USA

My son has asthma, and his disease is made worse by air pollution. In the summertime, we need to watch our weather app to see if it’s safe for our son to play outdoors. On hot days, when the air quality is terrible, I know that he’s going to have a tough day. As a mother who has seen the fear in her son's face as his chest tightens and he gasps to breathe, we must do more to protect him and children who suffer from this chronic illness.

Far too many times, I have had the experience of seeing my child gasp for air in the throes of an asthma attack. My son developed asthma at age three. During his attacks, he fights for every breath, a sign that his lungs are working too hard, too inefficiently, to support his heart and other vital organs. Several times we have landed in the emergency room. Far too often I have had to rush my son home after a soccer game or swimming on hot summer days to use his nebulizer and get his asthma under control. As I parent, I want to do whatever I can to help ease my son’s disease.

We live in Michigan, which has some of the worst rates of asthma in the country, according to the American Lung Association. Childhood asthma rates are significantly higher for children of color. Latino children are twice as likely to die from asthma, and Black children are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than white, non-Hispanic kids. These statistics make it abundantly clear that clean air is an environmental and social justice issue.

I regularly monitor the air quality index in Livingston County. When pollution levels get too high, I need to keep my son inside to avoid exposure. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, I am making immediate life and death decisions on whether or not we go outside.

Because of my son and the over 166,000 children in Michigan who suffer from asthma, we need more protective air quality standards to protect our children from air pollution. Pollution harms all of us, but it disproportionately impacts children. Kids are smaller, living closer to the ground than the rest of us, standing just about tailpipe high, where concentrations of pollution from cars, trucks, and buses is coming directly at them. Children’s still developing heart and lungs are being exposed to dirty exhaust from vehicles that spew carcinogenic poisons in the air. This tailpipe pollution causes poor air quality that can exacerbate asthma, causing more asthma attacks, resulting in millions of missed school days, games and outdoor family events for kids across the country.

I’m raising my voice with Moms Clean Air Force on behalf of the six million children in the U.S. with asthma. All of us with lung problems are more vulnerable to health impacts of air pollution.

Shaina Oliver from USA

I live on the ancestral lands of the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Ute Nations., including the 45 tribes that once occupied the state of Colorado. I am a field organizer for Moms Clean Air Force and EcoMadres of Colorado Chapter. I am an advocate for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights to clean air, water, lands, and health.

Most importantly I am an Indigenous mother of four, we are the descendants of the genocide known as the “Indian Removal Act”, known to the Dineh as “the long walk of the Navajo”. These types of policy violations have run a long historic impact on Indigenous peoples’, community, health, wealth, and environmental wellbeing. Its impacts continue to be felt today in the form of lack of consultation and consent with Indigenous leaders, extractive capitalism decisions made about resource extraction continue to hurt our communities, and environmental racism that we see in our communities as people of color, often as low-income community members. As a tribal member I have seen the devastation of degraded lands and the dwindling flocks of the birds, butterflies, and bees. Our Ancestral lands continue to be sacrificed for mining, drilling, and infrastructure of all sorts.

As a Colorado resident, myself and my family have experienced the worst air quality this past summer of air quality index above 120, according to IQAir reported by 9news Colorado.

It is Indigenous, Black, Latino, and low-income communities who bear the disproportionate burden of air pollution. Segregation has led to our communities being located by highways and industrial zones that impact our health. Many people, like me, bear the health burdens of pollution, such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, cancer, and adverse birth outcomes. COVID 19 has become one more health burden our communities disproportionately bear.

And I’ve been living with asthma since my infancy. Worsening air quality due to heat and wildfires related to climate change has a direct impact on my ability to breathe. Protective policies that clean up air pollution will save lives in communities like mine. Over 26 million people in the United States are burdened with asthma, including more than 6 million children. With recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, confirms that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying,” reconfirming the warnings Indigenous knowledge keepers have been raising for years. We must think of our next generations future and livability standards and access to clean air, water, soil, and health.

Michael from Uganda

On a normal day during peak traffic hours, you literally smell carbon monoxide and other toxic gases from vehicle tail pipes on the streets of Kampala. It's in the same time frames that our children are either walking to or from school while some are rushed unsafely "packed" on smoking motorcycles through the congestion.

While there are many factors contributing to ambient air pollution in the country and Africa at large, vehicular emissions seem to be the largest problem yet it's an area where very minimal and slow action is being taken.

80% - 90% of vehicles imported to Africa are very old with an average of 10 years of age and in Uganda its about 15 years. Many of these come highly polluting, and while here they are poorly maintained in ways that farther compromise inbuilt emission control systems, most roads are unpaved and motorists themselves lack capacity for eco-friendly driving making vehicles total health and environmental disasters.

I am a father of 3 cute and intelligent sons, but 2 of them have already been in and out of hospitals countless times battling respiratory infections due to heavy exposure to polluted air at school, in the home area and elsewhere in between.

I also worry about their cognitive development being affected by air pollution.

Uganda loses an estimated 31,600 people every year to air pollution related illnesses and children are affected the most because their body systems are still under development, they breathe more rapidly than adults and so absorb more pollutants. They also live closer to the ground, where some pollutants reach peak concentrations – at a time when their brains and bodies are still developing.

As any parent who wants their children to live healthy, I initiated and now leading a community-driven program dubbed Autosafety - Uganda with aim of improving environmental health in Uganda at grassroots.

The Kampala Clean Air Drive is our first project; and probably the first of its kind in the sub-saharan Africa where we are taking a 3-stream approach to beating air pollution from a technical standpoint at community levels.

But as startup nonprofit tackling a major societal problem from a new approach, challenges are quite many but collectively we can bring change and save our children's lungs. More about our program https://autosafety-ug-org

Dr. Sarika Verma from India

I was a regular mom, earning, spending, pampering my kids. A few years back I noticed that the the air quality began to get intolerable every October to December.

In 2018 the Gurgaon administration had to cancel school on Children's Day and my kids were so upset as they had been very excited about the fun at school. It struck me that day, what lousy adults our generation has been. Our kids' festivities were cancelled because we could not give them clean air.

Clean air is not a luxury, it is a basic need. Since then I have been actively working towards a cleaner environment. I started a 4-way waste segregation in my condominium, started composting, planting trees. I created green spaces on my balconies. I absolutely stopped single use plastic, became aware of my carbon footprint, reduced shopping to just essentials. I started a crockery bank for my community and became a Warrior Mom.

I'll be damned if I remain a hapless bystander while my children are being forced to breathe air that is toxic and unhealthy. I'm trying to influence my fellow citizens to change their lifestyle and the government officials in-charge of environmental to take better policy decisions.

I will make a difference or die trying.

I'm an ENT Surgeon and Allergy Specialist in Gurgaon, India.

Molly Rauch from USA

I am the mom of three teenagers in Washington DC. I had asthma as a child, but by the time I became a mom, I hadn’t had any symptoms for many years. When I moved to DC as an adult, I started having breathing problems again. I realized that my breathing was most labored on bad air days. Now I am careful to avoid spending time outside when there are air quality alerts.

DC has a long history of air pollution problems. Due to prevailing weather patterns here, we get a lot of the air pollution drifting in from other states. My children have grown up breathing polluted air. Luckily, they don’t have major health issues, but I know that even low levels of air pollution can harm their health over time. I get frustrated because this pollution is harmful, and it’s preventable, and yet our kids still have to breathe it. It shouldn’t have to be my job to keep track of air quality monitors and follow air quality alerts.

DC’s biggest air pollution problem is smog, or ground level ozone. Smog forms when certain chemicals react with sunlight and heat in the atmosphere. Because heat makes smog worse, this is a climate change problem. As climate change worsens, smog levels will go up in US cities and around the world. We are already seeing this happen in some parts of the US.

The latest IPCC report has affirmed that we are living in an unequivocal climate crisis. But we don’t need a UN report to tell us what so many of us are experiencing in our own communities: searing heat waves, staggering wildfires, and terrible floods, unprecedented rainfall, choking drought.

My teenage son is an athlete who trains outside in the summer. His football team practices outside in the heat. We have had several heat emergency days, including code orange air days for ozone. A code orange day means that the air is dangerous to breathe for sensitive populations. Who is sensitive? Children, anyone who works outside, athletes, pregnant women, people with asthma, people who have had COVID, anyone with heart disease or diabetes or obesity or any other underlying condition. On code orange air days, we all have someone we love for whom the air is dangerous to breathe.

Here in DC, we have a historical average of 11 dangerously hot days each year. In the 2020s, we are projected to have 18 each year. By the 2050s, heat emergencies in DC are projected to increase to 30-45 days. This is hard on my son’s body, and it will harm the health of athletes like him in the future.

My three children are the reason I fight for clean air, and they are the reason I work for Moms Clean Air Force.

Thea Jeffer from United Kingdom

My son and I have lived in Finsbury Park in London since he was 10 months old. Just after he turned 1 he was hospitalized for a week with bronchiolitis and since then he’s suffered from viral induced asthma, requiring hospitalization 1-3 times per year, and dependent on a salbutamol inhaler to get through regular colds. We were told he might outgrow this but so far at almost 7 years old, he hasn’t.

He takes a preventer inhaler every day. In the last episode two weeks ago, he didn’t really have viral symptoms, only the asthma, which makes me wonder what is really triggering this. We are close to some high traffic areas in Finsbury Park so it seems logical his asthma could be related to the air quality.


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