Hard to Breathe: How Northeast Ohio's Climate Leads to Increased Risk for Respiratory Problems
State lawmakers are gearing up for another round in the fight over renewable energy mandates.
Opponents say they’re a financial burden; supporters say they help cut down on air pollution, which then improves respiratory health.
There is one part of Ohio where the risk for experiencing breathing problems is one of the highest in the country.
The clickety-clack of an XBOX controller can be heard in Dalton Aufdenkamp’s living room as the 15-year-old chats with other gamers in his headset. It’s a sunny day and not too hot for August. But Dalton makes sure all the windows are shut, the doors are closed, and the air conditioner is running.
'You learn what you can do and can't do, you just learn to adjust to it. You don't let it control your life.'
It’s a hazy, humid day as cars and trucks pass by the neighborhood, which sits along I-77 just south of Akron. This is the kind of day that can be dangerous for kids like Dalton, who have asthma.
His mother, Clara Aufdenkamp, can relate. She’s lived with the same respiratory illness for 54 years, making sure to teach Dalton all the tips he needs to know to stay safe.
“You learn what you can do and can’t do, you just learn to adjust to it, you don’t let it control your life,” she said.
Preparing for the worst
But like many parents, she plans for the worst-case scenario.
“If I’m gonna get the phone call from school that he was in gym, he went into full alert, he’s on his way to the emergency room. Or he’s passed out 'cause he couldn’t breathe,” she says.
The Aufdenkamp family is not alone. Several studies show people living in the 44301 zip code, along with other neighborhoods in Akron, Canton and Cleveland, are at an increased risk of respiratory problems because of the higher levels of air pollution.
Why Northeast Ohio?
“It’s often described as being like a fish out of water.”
Dr. Sumita Khatri specializes in respiratory illnesses at the Cleveland Clinic. She says there’s no question that people in this part of the state have a harder time breathing because of the higher volume of particulate matter. There are more than 2 million people who live in Cuyahoga, Summit and Stark counties, and about 10 percent of those people -- kids and adults -- have asthma.
“We are a function of who we are, how we’re made up genetically and also the environment that we’re in. And so although to some degree everyone is affected by air pollution from a health standpoint, there are also people who are especially sensitive and susceptible,” she said.
Khatri is backed by studies from the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Lung Association which had the Cleveland, Akron, Canton region in the top 10 for people most at-risk to particle pollution, year-round. She attributes that to the large volume of vehicles, heavy traffic stagnation and manufacturing plants.
In response to the problem, mostly Democratic and some Republican state lawmakers have advocated for stronger support for renewable energy and clean vehicles. But Greg Lawson with The Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that the region’s respiratory struggles shouldn’t just be tied to air pollution but other factors as well, such as poverty.
“A lot of times you have situations where the keep is not as good, you may have sewage issues, you may have mold issues and again as an asthmatic mold and things like that can be absolutely devastating,” he said.
Clara Aufdenkamp commends the steps local industrial plants have taken to clean their operations. And while studies have shown that the air in Clara Aufdenkamp’s region makes it harder to breathe, this is the neighborhood she grew up in and she refuses to let pollution dictate where she lives.
“You’re gonna have pollution anywhere you go. And you can choose how you adapt your life to that. That’s what I’ve been taught and what I’ve been teaching him is that you adapt you don’t let anything control you,” she said.
This issue is likely to take center stage at the Statehouse as lawmakers plan to once again revisit the possibility of repealing Ohio’s efficient and renewable energy mandates.