06/23/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

The Cruelty of Asthma

Rosa Perea's 5-year-old son lives an asphyxiating life. If he does not take his medicine every morning or if the air is too polluted, he can end up in the emergency room with an asthma attack.

Perea, director of the Juan Diego Community Center in South Chicago, goes through this tragedy not only at home but also at work. The Center is a community clinic that last year served 19,000 people, mostly low-income Latino asthma patients, and many, many children.

Perea and her primarily volunteer staff stand at the forefront of a daily struggle against an unforgiving enemy called air pollution. And their most effective weapon is prevention.

"We try to make sure people keep an eye on the kids with asthma on days when it is very dry, and they don't water down the coal ash. The kids can't breathe that air," warns Perea, who lives and works surrounded by industrial facilities and several coal-fired plants.

"Most people just think of this neighborhood as a place for industry, and no one really questions when a new polluter comes in," laments Perea. "And the big companies who have power take advantage of that."

The most dangerous component of the toxic cocktail of pollutants she, her son and the rest of the community breathe is smog, a poisonous brew formed by the combustion gases of coal and hydrocarbons, the sun and the summer's heat. Smog acts as a corrosive agent that damages lung tissue, reduces lung capacity and increases the risk of heart attacks.

But this enemy is especially cruel with the Hispanic community. Asthma is considered an epidemic among Hispanics, especially among our kids. And almost half of us live in places where smog levels exceed the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

And it is the EPA that must alleviate this national crisis that is poisoning our communities and costing us all hundreds of billions of dollars in health costs. But for months, the agency has been delaying the implementation of a strong smog standard.

In January 2010, the EPA proposed such guidelines, which would save 17,000 premature deaths, 120,000 cases of childhood asthma and save us $100 billion each year. But in December, the EPA delayed the implementation of the standard and charged a scientific commission with determining whether this was the right path. The scientists agreed, and now the EPA must finalize the standard in July.

Across the country people are speaking out to demand stronger protections from air pollution. The most recent came in the form of a letter to President Obama signed by 14 Hispanic groups urging him to adopt the strongest possible standard, known as the 60-70 ppb (parts per billion).

"The Latino community has faced many challenges over the past few years," the letter reads. "We've seen missed opportunities, delays and more. With lives at stake, we hope that we won't see yet another burden if polluting industries succeed in blocking EPA's efforts to protect us from smog."

"I am hoping that the Obama Administration will not back off the 60-70 ppb," said Juan Parras, executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS), one of signers of the letter. "If the standard is not improved now, it will be a long time before we see some real substance added to solving an ever increasing health threat."

We now have a historic opportunity to end our addiction to fossil fuels by fostering the growth of clean, renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, which pose no threat to our health and promise us the creation of millions of jobs.

It is in the hands of the EPA that Perea's son and hundreds of thousands of other Latino kids -- the most punished by this grave illness, will see themselves freed from the cruelty of asthma.

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