Demanding Toxic Free Zones and Safer School and Play Areas for our Kids

When I was an elementary school student in San Jose, California I vividly recall one girl in the fifth grade, her name was Jeannie. Short black hair, glasses, she never spoke to anyone, and now that I am an adult it’s clear to me she wasn’t happy and she never smiled.  Jeannie had frequent epileptic attacks that were traumatic to watch and I know were much more traumatic to experience. The janitor, Rey, would come to her side during the attacks, pick her up and take her to the nurse with tears in his eyes, it made my heart ache. This happened frequently. Many of the “sick” kids were  outcasts. No one wanted to play with them and worse yet, they were teased. Back then we had no idea that their illnesses could be related to toxics in our environment. Now I realize there were many kids with asthma, epilepsy, learning disabilities, autism, cancer and other less visible illnesses like lupus that made them miss school and then fall behind in their schoolwork.  As a child, I also suffered from asthma and took medication for a mild form of epilepsy that later disappeared. I was one of the lucky ones. I really don’t know for sure if it was related to an exposure to environmental toxics. What I do know is that toxics were everywhere, pesticides, Malathion, lead from chipped paint in our homes, the diesel fuel from trucks, and the factories nearby.  Our segregated Latino neighborhoods were legally being sprayed by helicopters with thousands of gallons of malathion (a pesticide) to get rid of the Mexican Mediterranean Fruit Fly, which was thought to be threatening California’s $18 Billion agriculture industry. This toxic affects the nervous system first and has been linked to cancer. Some even believe that this pesticide is linked to autism.

This experience from my past is also true today for most of our kids in similar neighborhoods, and now we know a lot more about the connection between pollution and long-term illness in our children. Many studies have shown that children who live and go to school near freeways, oil drills, factories, auto body shops, and refineries are suffering more from illnesses such as asthma, ADHD, autism, and cancer than children who are not exposed to these polluters as frequently.  Most of the toxics are petro-chemicals, that cause learning disabilities, autism, and cancer.   The consequence for some children who are frequently exposed to toxics is that they are home sick more often, have higher achievement gaps overall, and are less likely to graduate from high school. Children in polluted neighborhoods also tend to live in old housing with mold, bed bugs, lead from chipping paint, and allergens and most are not under the regular care of a physician. Also, pesticides and other chemicals are used in schools and playgrounds and even though you may be notified that they are used in the school, accommodations to avoid exposure are usually not made for our kids who need them.  What does this mean for your child besides the suffering from illnesses and losing class time and missing out on playing outside and getting the exercise they need?

First of all certain pollutants, particularly pesticides and petro chemicals from the refineries, oil drills and car traffic can cause nervous system damage which can lead to behavioral problems, learning disabilities and other developmental disorders. Second, because there is generally lower academic performance because of the absenteeism and illnesses in these neighborhoods, our children are less likely to graduate from high school due in part to the absences and medical issues. This sadly has the possible effect of creating a perpetual cycle of poverty in a child’s life that lingers into adulthood, in addition to all of the other factors stacked against them from living in an underserved and polluted neighborhood.

Many of these children return to classrooms with minimal accommodations and have difficulty meeting curriculum requirements. Because these students are constantly trying to “catch up,” they can experience increased anxiety and depression. Certain medical treatments and medicines also affect academic achievement, producing symptoms such as drowsiness, fatigue, nausea, increased irritability, decreased attention span and impaired learning. This tragedy happens a lot more in underserved areas. But these issues are certainly not limited to these regions.

What can a parent do?

First, you have to ask questions when you notice changes in your child’s behavior or health. Overcome your doubts and make time to demand information, it’s not a time to be humble. Then address these questions to your child’s doctor, to your school, and even to your local government. You may not even know what kind of pollution there is in your neighborhood or know what is really happening to your child. Don’t worry about not knowing–you don’t need to know to get treatment, but it’s important to make the link between your child’s illness and pollution and ask everyone to consider that possibility. If you think your home could be the problem because it’s old and in disrepair, you can call the the local health department or housing department. In Los Angeles, we are lucky to have the Healthy Homes Collaborative, they have promotoras (bilingual health educators) that can come out to your home and inspect it and ask questions about your surroundings. They have been involved with lead inspections for many years and have a bilingual team that has helped thousands of families. The promotoras can also connect you with other resources to figure out how to help your child and what the next steps should be.

What can the School do to help?

Most schools should be ready to provide special services for your child once he or she has begun treatment, whether it’s for asthma, autism, or another illness.  However, you must be the one to ask for the help and for special accommodations for your child. Four common components to include in all transitions back to school from treatment (school reentry) programs are: homebound instruction, flexible attendance, differentiated instruction, and social support.

Ask the school about children’s counseling services for emotional and psychological support. The illness and absence from school itself affects the child’s self confidence, and all of this could lead to long term mental health issues if the child’s illness is not treatment. The bottom line is to make the connection between your environment and your child’s health — and most importantly be brave and ask the questions. Find the support system that will help your child succeed.

Don’t Give UP

What is the value of a child’s life, a good life without illness, that allows them to thrive and live out their full potential?   Well, our children’s lives are equally valuable and for that reason we must not give up and realize that even though their illness is not our fault, but we have to keep fighting for their health and their lives.  My mother worked full time in a cannery, but somehow she always found time to be an advocate for my education and my health. She took me to the doctor more than I can remember, she cried over my bed while giving me the asthma treatments, as I tried to console her and tell her everything would be o.k., and that I would be fine. She modeled to me what it means to be a fighter, engaged and how important it is for  not just one child, but for our community.  Never give up, you will find a way.  No te des por vencida!

What do you think?

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Marta A. Segura, M.P.H.

Marta A. Segura, M.P.H.

Marta A. Segura is the CEO of her Public Affairs firm GOLD, a change agent, strategist, coalition builder, nonprofit consultant, and Board member of the Southern California Leadership Network, Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters. She is also an appointed member of the Mayor to the LA METRO Community Advisory Council, and formerly a City Planning Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles.
Her network is vast as she has been working across sectors for over 20 years. Her passion for civic engagement knows no boundaries. Marta has more than 20 years of management, leadership and advocacy experience in the public and nonprofit sectors, and served as District Director for then Councilmember Eric Garcetti, now Mayor of Los Angeles. Marta has an uncanny ability to integrate both her leadership and people skills into all that she does. Also she is an advocate for Open Space, Toxic Free Communities, and is passionate about building the wellbeing and voices of our most marginalized communities. Her recent clients have included Nike, LA 84 Foundation, LA SAN, City of LA, Housing Authority of the City of LA, and the Los Angeles Latino Chamber of Commerce.
She graduated from public schools in San Jose, California and from there she went to UCSB for her bachelor’s degree and then later received her Master’s Degree from UCLA’s School of Public Health. Marta wanted her son to also to attend public schools, but she transferred him out in the 3rd grade, because the school system was in decline in her neighborhood, and she made the very difficult choice of transferring him to a Catholic School in South LA, where he has thrived free of bullying and has been inspired to learn every day.

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