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One NYC Mother Has Made Fighting Pollution a Priority

Dominique Browning, mother and NYC and Rhode Island resident, co-founded Moms Clean Air Force, a group dedicated to cleaning up air pollution because it is harmful to your child's health.

Girl blowing pinwheelTiffany Casanova, a mother of two who lives in the Bronx, became interested in environmental issues when it became apparent that the building she lived in with her twin sons might have been making them sick because of a serious mold issue and forced heating.

“I spent a lot of time researching illnesses in children related to air quality in inner cities and apartment buildings and learned that there aren’t many options for parents,” Casanova says.

Now Casanova produces a web series, Tristin and Tyler’s Tales from the City, which she hosts with her sons to educate families on ways they can help the environment. Their goal is to make going green easier for families with fun tutorials and videos that show them how they can help the environment by recycling and reusing resources as well as reducing their consumption.

It’s not uncommon for parents who have faced hurdles like this to become activists. It’s one of the reasons that Dominique Browning co-founded Moms Clean Air Force, a group dedicated to cleaning up air pollution. “I’ve known for years that we have an air pollution problem,” Browning says. “But I didn’t know until just recently how much poison is being spewed out.”


The Clean Air Act: Helping Prevent Respiratory Illness

In 2010, Americans celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act, which controls air pollution on a national level. It requires the Environmental Protection Agency to develop and enforce regulations to protect the public from airborne contaminants from both industrial and mobile sources that are known to be hazardous to human health.

In 1990, provisions for addressing acid rain, ozone depletion, and toxic air pollution were added and a national permits program for stationary sources was begun. Emissions standards changed to cut down on air pollution, too. The EPA estimates that in 2020, the current law will prevent more than 230,000 early deaths and contribute a $2 trillion economic benefit.

But recently the Clean Air Act has come under scrutiny. The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming created by former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in 2007 was disbanded at the end of 2010. And although the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards passed last year, there is flexibility over when industry leaders put it into play. Some industries believe that the newest standards are too strict. Others believe that they don’t go far enough.

Browning and the members of Moms Clean Air Force agree with the latter position. It’s hard to argue against the mounting evidence that the air, especially in urban areas, is unsafe for people, especially children. “Even though my kids are grown up, I’m forever their mom,” says Browning, who lives in New York City and Rhode Island. “I’m protective. I want to make the world a safer place. And I want that for their children too.”

It’s a valid concern. Air pollution hurts children disproportionately because they breathe more air, eat more food, and drink more liquid in proportion to their body weight than adults. Also, because children are developing respiratory, immunological, and digestive systems, they may be more susceptible to environmental exposures than adults. 

According to pediatrician Michael Bachman of PM Pediatrics, which has offices in Long Island, New York City, and Westchester, there is evidence that many environmental exposures play a large role in triggering asthma and allergy symptoms. The severity of asthma attacks, frequency of emergency department visits, and number of deaths due to asthma has increased as air quality has decreased.


Bad Grades for Urban Environments

Living in metropolitan areas can increase the strain on the environment. New York City received an “F” grade for ozone and a “D” grade for particle pollution over 24 hours, according to the 2011 State of the Air report from the American Lung Association. Ozone is produced when sunlight combines and reacts with chemicals produced by cars, power plants, and factories. Particle pollution can be directly emitted like smoke from a woodstove, but a lot of particles form when gases react in the air. 

“Although New York City has worked extensively to decrease outdoor air pollution and has one of the best public transport systems, there continue to be environmental issues, potentially related to its high-population density,” says Deepa Rastogi, the director of the pediatric asthma center at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. “Given the number of major highways that transect the city, there is exposure to air pollution, particularly diesel exhaust fumes. In addition, many vehicles, such as buses, tend to idle, which adds further to the diesel exhaust particle contamination in the air.”


Kid Matters

Regardless of the type of exposure, there are several ways to keep children healthy. Parents should check the EPA’s Air Quality Index, which measures the level of air pollutants including ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. Days that have low exposure are green or yellow days. People can spend as much time as they’d like outside on these days without cause for concern.

On days with poor air quality, parents should limit their child’s time outside. Outdoor activities should be planned for early in the day when air quality tends to be better. Parents should also make sure that children play in areas without a lot of traffic.

Parents who are worried about their children’s health should take heart knowing that there are many area organizations trying to make a difference. 

Harriet Shugarman, whose two children have suffered from breathing issues, is the founder of ClimateMama, which works to empower parents to learn more and speak out on climate change. She visits schools, community organizations, and houses of worship to teach others about climate change.

“I strongly believe in the Native American saying, ‘We don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, but we are borrowing it from our children,’” Shugarman says. “We are at a point that I believe humankind has never faced before, where we can permanently damage our planet and our environment and leave a mess for our children that they won’t have the opportunity to clean up.”


Taking Action

“History isn’t made by those who stand silent or by those who decide not to decide,” said environmental activist and mom of two Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June. “It is made by those whose actions reflect their intentions. It is up to each of us…to continue to speak out for the future we want. And together, we are becoming a voice too loud to ignore.” 


A Recent Legislative Victory

On June 20, the Senate defeated an attempt to kill an EPA clean-air safeguard, the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. Browning thanked supporters on the Moms Clean Air Force website for supporting the safeguards and helping to defeat the bill by “writing letters, signing petitions, making phone calls, posting on Facebook, Tweeting, and all the other powerful actions [taken] to let your senators know that you demand that poisons be removed from our air—Moms Clean Air Force members sent more than 50,000 messages to the Senate opposing Inhofe’s bill and, clearly, our voices were heard!”

To learn how you can get involved, visit Moms Clean Air Force, MomsRising, and Citizens Climate Lobby.


Also see:

A Parents' Guide to Raising Healthy Kids

How Worried Should I be About Secondhand Smoke?

Smart Talk for Teens About Smoking and Asthma

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