The exhaust from those trucks, day after day, week after week, had a tremendous impact on the health of my home community.
Air pollution became personal in 1986 when I walked into a room and heard hundreds of stories of asthma and other respiratory problems from Harlem residents who lived near a sewage treatment plant. Harlem is the epicenter of the asthma epidemic in the United States. The rates of asthma and asthma mortality are so high that they drive the national averages.
In addition to that sewage treatment plant, my hometown has breathed in pollution from municipal bus depots, the West Side highway, and a marine waste transfer station that was adjacent to a huge apartment building and a middle school. For nearly half a century, diesel garbage trucks hauled trash to large barges that carried the waste to Staten Island. The exhaust from those trucks, day after day, week after week, had a tremendous impact on the health of my home community.
Eventually, I moved to Maryland, but my new home is no stranger to air pollution either. Maryland residents suffer air pollution from agriculture, terrible traffic congestion, coal-fired power plants, and fugitive dust that blows from coal ash landfills.
Like Harlem, the state of Maryland also has epidemic levels of asthma, particularly in urban areas such as Baltimore. Salisbury, the Eastern Shore, and all over Prince George's County—the county where I live—are hard hit as well. Even though there are world class institutions here like the medical centers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, they can't stem the incidences of poor health and mortality due to asthma and other respiratory issues. The issue is particularly epidemic in African-American and Latino communities.
President Obama, members of Congress and especially the Environmental Protection Agency must work to tighten health protections against particulate matter pollution. Particulate matter is literally a killer. People in Maryland, New York, and communities across the country are paying with their lives for every year we delay in setting new, protective standards.