THE BLOG

Sick and Tired of Pollution, Latino Kids Fight Back Armed With Courage and Wit

03/13/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Lupita Pérez had just had it breathing dirty air during her young life. At 14, she has decided to join the fight for a clean air future for her baby sister, who will be born in the next few weeks.

"Babies are not born with asthma. They get it because of the bad air and they can die from that," says Lupita, a freshman at Desert Mirage High School, in the Coachella Valley, one of the country's regions with the worst air quality.

The Valley -- especially its eastern part, where thousands of Latino families live -- saw 40 days of air quality violations in 2014. Few places in California, or the U.S. for that matter, suffer a more intense toxic bombardment than here. In fact, 10 percent of the Valley's children suffer from asthma.

One of them is the younger brother of Elijah Martínez, a 17-year-old senior at Desert Mirage HS.

"He plays soccer very well. And he dreams of becoming a pro, but it saddens me that he can't play as much as he wants because he has asthma," he laments.

Thousands of young Latinos in the Valley have their own story about the suffering caused by air pollution, including Selene Hernández, whose grandmother recently died of lung cancer.

"During her last days she got very sick and could barely breathe because of the dirty air. I don't want anyone else to go through something like that," says Selene, who's also a senior at Desert Mirage HS.

Just like Lupita, Selene, Elijah and 100 other students at Desert Mirage HS said enough is enough, and in February, they all traveled for nine hours to Sacramento to testify at the EPA hearings about the improvement of the federal smog standards. Smog, a toxic gas generated by the burning of fossil fuels, can have the same effects on lung tissue as sunburn on the skin.

The current standard is 75 parts per billion (ppb), but health experts, such as the American Lung Association, insist to really protect public health the standard must be reduced to 60 ppb. The EPA has proposed a standard as low as 65 ppb but is also accepting comments on a 60-ppb one.

"I demanded for them to bring the ppb down to 60 because it is a human right to have fresh air to breathe," says Lupita.

"It got very emotional when we all shared our stories about how the air pollution is affecting us. And some representatives of the EPA were getting teary-eyed just by listening to us," remembers Selene.

The benefits of fighting air pollution can be enormous. A recent University of Southern California study found that a substantial improvement of the air quality allows children to develop bigger, stronger lungs. From 1999 to 2011, a period during which air quality in California improved exponentially thanks to the Clean Air Act, researchers observed that among the 2,000 participants in the study, there was a 10-percent increase in lung capacity on average. Also, premature deaths were greatly reduced.

Polluters, on the other hand, insist improving the current smog standard would undermine the growth and profits of their industries. This is what the students have to say to the polluters:

"Come down to the Valley and see for yourselves any children who have asthma and see how hard it is for them to breathe and play," says Elijah.

"There are people's lives on the line. And also there are clean alternatives, such as solar and wind," responds Selene.

"If they think they could be losing money, we out here could be losing our lives. By refusing to lower the ppb, they are putting our lives in danger. Asthma can come just like that, especially for little babies. Our lives are more important that their profits," concludes Lupita, who dreams of attending Harvard or Stanford to become an environmental lawyer and "fight polluters in the courts."

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC