Several years ago, after a long winter of taking care of my three little kids and not taking very good care of myself, I got sick with bronchitis. Weeks after my course of treatment had ended, I was still having trouble breathing. Finally my boss, who was a nurse, gave me a stern talking-to. “You are visiting the doctor,” she said, as I coughed in my cubicle. “Today.”
The doctor prescribed an asthma inhaler. I asked him, “Do I have asthma?” He said, “I don’t really know. I’m not willing to say that, but this will make you feel better.”
I said, “Why am I having these problems?” He said, “I don’t really know, but this will make you feel better.”
So I filled the prescription, and I used the inhaler when I needed it, and I did feel better.
Months later, though, a light bulb went off for me. It was a hot and humid day, and I had gone on a long bike ride, and my lungs were really bothering me. They hurt, and I was short of breath. As I used my inhaler, I suddenly realized that my symptoms were strikingly worse on code orange air days — days when the ground level ozone in DC is at unhealthy levels.
Air pollution was literally making me sick.
I started paying attention to air quality alerts for myself. DC happens to have a lot of these kinds of days, because of our infamous traffic and because we are downwind from polluting power plants in the Midwest that burn coal to make electricity. But I wasn’t just paying attention to the air quality for me – I was also thinking about my kids. They don’t have respiratory issues, but they spend a lot of time outside, and their lungs are still developing, like the lungs of all children.
I learned about a new organization, Moms Clean Air Force. The idea was to get moms educated on air pollution and active against climate change. My background in health and my personal health issues melded seamlessly with my concern for my kids’ health. I knew right away that I wanted to dedicate my professional energies to this organization. We’re now a million moms strong.
One of our first campaigns was focused on mercury. Moms hear a lot about mercury when we are pregnant. We’re told by our doctors to avoid eating tuna and other fish with mercury in it. Well, that mercury is actually an air pollution problem. The mercury that is naturally occurring in coal in tiny quantities goes up into the air when it’s burned. Over time, as a lot of coal is burned, that mercury gets into the clouds, rains down over the ocean, and eventually you have toxic fish with a heavy metal that can harm your baby’s brain.
Now, why is that our problem? Why are moms told to stop eating certain things? That should be industry’s problem. So Moms Clean Air Force started organizing moms to make industry clean up its own mess. We helped win the passage of the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard, which limited mercury emissions from coal burning power plants.
From our mercury campaign, and our subsequent campaigns, we’ve learned three lessons about how to protect our kids from air pollution and climate change.
First, moms are powerful.
Your voice makes a difference. You don’t have to be an economist or a climate scientist to have important things to say about pollution and health. We need moms at the table, because industry has an army of executives working to promote their products. Who is going to promote the health of children? That’s our job, as moms.
Second, naptime activism is important.
We help moms do little things that don’t take a lot of time. We want you to be able to do small things while baby is sleeping or when you’re on lunch break at work. Things like signing a petition or sending an email to your governor. We know moms are busy. But when a lot of us do small things, the numbers add up and make a difference.
Third, naptime activism isn’t enough.
It needs to be combined with face to face conversations with lawmakers. That’s why we take moms into lawmakers’ offices to meet with them and tell their stories, from the heart, about pollution and our kids. One of our volunteers came with us to the Senate office building for the first time a couple of years ago. She was walking down the marble hallways with big eyes, and she said, “I didn’t know I was allowed in here.” We get that a lot. And what we say to that is, these people work for you. Literally. You’re the boss here. Go in there and tell them why this is important to you. That kind of conversation sways people, and that’s the way to make a difference on this issue.
I want every family to be able to breathe healthy air. Healthy air is a human right. One of the things I was really surprised to learn about through my work with Moms Clean Air Force is the toll that asthma takes on our kids. Every day, 77,000 children stay home from school because of asthma. Asthma is the most common reason that kids miss school. That is a tremendous burden on our kids, our families, our communities, and it has implications for their education and for family’s pocketbooks that are really sobering.
Tuesday, May 2 was World Asthma Day, and as part of that, Moms Clean Air Force did an installation at Union Station in DC. We laid out 770 lunch boxes and lunch trays on the lawn in front of Union Station. Each object represented 100 kids who missed school that day due to asthma. Now asthma is a complex disease, but we know that air pollution makes it worse. This is not a good time to dismantle clean air protections. We need to do all we can to support these kids getting healthy and being able to breathe.
While we were out there, so many people came by to talk to us. One woman, Carlita, came by with her baby. She wanted to thank us for raising awareness. She told us that she had three kids with asthma. Her fourth child, a son, passed away last year because of an asthma attack. He was three years old. We need to do a better job of keeping the air clean for Carlita, and her son. That keeps me fighting for change.
I hope you’ll join us.
Molly Rauch is Public Health Policy Director for Moms Clean Air Force. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and three children. Her writing on environmental health has appeared in Goodhousekeeping.com, Parents.com, and Huffington Post, among other publications.