Throughout my college career, I have been diagnosed with several chronic conditions that have weakened my immune system. In turn, my body has grown increasingly intolerant to many things--including allergens and chemicals in the air. There have been many days when I have developed an irritated airway and shortness of breath after simply walking on campus. The prospect of attending any outdoor function has caused me anxiety, as predicting ‘bad days’ to go outside has essentially become a guessing game. I now know that pollution does not have to appear as a billowing, black tower of smoke in order to be detrimental to my health.
My environmental allergies and allergy-induced asthma developed only after I moved to the Houston area, and yet my doctors have never mentioned pollution as a contributing factor. Since onset, these symptoms have only worsened and have contributed to poor health outcomes as I battle my other chronic conditions. At times, the quality of the air I breathe has been the determining factor of whether or not I am debilitated on a particular day. When I have traveled, I have felt significantly better while spending time outdoors. Due to this observation, along with my growing understanding of Houston’s air quality issues, it feels impossible to believe that pollen is the only culprit.
I often face the illusion of being isolated in my illness, particularly when it comes to my fear of spending time outdoors. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. What is so insidious about this issue is that it is in no way limited to a single area, despite its lack of public visibility. Whether I stay at my parents’ home in Sugar Land, far from any industrial complex, or at my apartment, just feet away from a railroad and just down the street from the industry-packed East End, I am exposed to air that makes me feel worse.
While nature should serve as a refuge from the man-made world, for me, and for many others, being outdoors in Houston is the opposite. Whether you are a patient with a compromised immune system like me, an underserved individual living in a fenceline community, a medical-center doctor who trains for marathons in her spare time, or a homeowner in the suburbs who fears the next unexpected storm, we are all vulnerable. Even more importantly, we all have a right to breathe clean air and we should not have to uproot our lives in order to claim that right. I am a true believer in sustainable change happening from the ground up. The stories of those whose lives are most deeply affected by air pollution, many of which are more dire than my own, should be amplified. With better visibility and understanding, we can start to find solutions as a community.