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Air Pollution Sickens, But It Also Unites

The Clean Air Ambassadors who arrived yesterday in Washington, D.C. have some amazing stories to tell, and I spent the better part of yesterday hearing them. Alexandra Allred from Midlothian, TX described a day she spent outside with her son Tommy—a day when he didn’t suffer his usual respiratory issues and could play carefree, like a kid again. “I had my son back,” she told me.

William Anderson, an ambassador from Nevada and Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes, described the coal fly ash that shrouds his community in a haze of toxic dust, choking local residents and concealing the nearby mountains behind a curtain of miasmal fog.

Kimberly Hill of Detroit, MI told me about residents who live near the Marathon oil refinery, which is expanding to refine tar sands crude oil from Canada—one of the dirtiest fossil fuels on earth. Tucked under a toxic blanket, these residents suffer from respiratory disease and unusual forms of cancer.

The ambassadors’ stories spring from pollution, disease, loss of loved ones and other unsavory challenges that life presents. But more importantly, their stories are charged with hope, perseverance and bravery. Many of the ambassadors arrived to tell their tales having never set foot in Washington, D.C., that inner circle of government life where power concentrates imposingly, and too often to the exclusion of the very people whose votes put the powerful in office. To walk in those halls and sit in those offices to tell Very Important People how vital clean air is to one’s community is an act of bravery by which I am awed and humbled.

Though the details are different, a common thread runs between the ambassadors' stories: air pollution is an American problem that needs fixing. Whether you live in the shadow of a cement plant or below the still-pristine skies of Alaska, chances are you or someone you love is impacted by dirty air. The ambassadors—who today will meet with administration officials at the White House and later with EPA chief Lisa Jackson and members of her staff—are a microcosm of the American public. Their stories are the stories of millions of people across the country.

I feel fortunate to have heard these stories. But what’s most heartening is that the ambassadors are talking to one another and building connections that will only make their call for clean air even more resounding. By building these connections, we will come to discover that our stories when threaded together are a more powerful weave than any single strand.

Meet the ambassadors and tell us your story. We all have a right to breathe, and we must continue to declare it.