Is there a more uncomfortable, unpleasant sound to hear than that of a young child coughing and struggling to breathe?
As a former teacher and current doctor, I've witnessed the suffering of many children with pulmonary diseases. My medical training took me to the field of psychiatry where I have become even more aware of the psychological impact of chronic disease.
It's devastating to meet children with such exuberant potential, with such buoyant personalities and inalienable rights to good health, cursed with a lifetime of debilitating asthma directly hindering their educational outcomes, emotional well-being and quality of life.
This was apparent during my medical education and teaching career in the Bronx. Surrounded by freeways, the neighborhood I served was nicknamed "an island of pollution." Parents would keep their kids home when they "felt their asthma acting up." Students would sometimes stay home to take care of parents when they were having trouble breathing — one student even lost a parent to asthma.
These cases were ubiquitous during my tenure at the ECHO free clinic in the Bronx and taught me a valuable lesson about the limits of my professional craft. As a doctor, I believe strongly in the power of medicine, but medications can only do so much for patients whose illness is repeatedly triggered by pollution. A community-level solution is inherently necessary for a community-level problem.
Two years ago, I was overjoyed to return to Portland to continue my medical career in my home state. I was surprised to learn that my hometown shares New York's dangerous levels of ambient air pollution. There are multiple culprits for Oregon's abysmal air quality, but the prevalence of outdated diesel engines in freight trucks and construction equipment remains a significant contributor.
The scientific consensus on the relationship between diesel particulate and community health is downright ghastly — research has linked diesel not only to asthma but diabetes, cancer, heart disease, infant mortality, premature birth and Alzheimer's. Diesel engines also produce black carbon, contributing to our climate crisis.
State Rep. Karin Power's House Bill 2007 is the Legislature's latest attempt to mitigate the threat that dirty diesel represents to our community. The most effective way to reduce diesel pollution is to accelerate the uptake of cleaner engines; HB 2007 sets specific deadlines to remove the worst-offending diesel engines from medium- and heavy-duty trucks in the Portland metro area.
It should come as no surprise that air pollution is disproportionately harming Oregon's low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Many students at North Portland's Harriet Tubman Middle School choose to forgo outdoor recess because they are concerned that pollution from the nearby freeway will make them sick. These students shouldn't bear the burdens of unnecessary pollution. Clean air is an environmental justice issue.
I hope the Legislature will take swift action and pass HB 2007. No one should have to listen to their children struggle to breathe because we couldn't find the political resolve to regulate dirty diesel and protect clean air.
Dr. Heather Buxton is a psychiatry resident at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, but she is speaking on behalf of herself, not her employer. She lives in Southwest Portland.
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