Reflections on a Flight to Chile

By Andrea Becerra

Wikipedia Commons/ Bitburgerbeer

As I was waiting to board my flight to Santiago, Chile, I glossed over the latest environmental news headlines stopping at: “Extreme Smog in Santiago Prompts Chile to Call State of Emergency.” It’s an all too common scene in Santiago, one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Working for an environmental organization and reading phrases like “high levels of particulate matter (PM) pollution” in the article, automatically brought visions of smokestacks and asthmatic children to mind. PM pollution can become trapped in the lungs and can even enter our bloodstream, threatening both our lungs and heart. Effects include asthma, heart attacks, and premature death.

PM pollution in Santiago comes from car exhaust fumes, industrial pollution, and firewood smoke. Winters in Santiago are particularly cold, and low-income families who don’t have proper heating in their homes rely on wood-burning stoves. As one reporter puts it: “winter after winter, they [Chilean families] face the dilemma of needing both heating and air.” According to the Chilean Environmental National Commission (CONAMA) every year, nearly 20,000 people in Santiago suffer health problems associated with air pollution and 700 people die during the winter season.

I moved to the U.S. from Chile when I was nine years old. Growing up in the U.S. I traveled back and forth between both countries often. I have this vivid memory of sitting in the back of a car with my cousin when her dad handed her a pill and told her it would help counter the effects of the smoggy winter. To this day, I’m not sure what pill it was and whether it really had any effect, but I remember my cousins taking them like a daily vitamin.

As part of the Voces Verdes team at NRDC I’ve had the opportunity to learn about the many environmental issues our countrymen and women face every day. In particular, I’ve learned about the health obstacles that Latino families face in the U.S. when it comes to pollution. Because of income, language barriers and where Latinos live and work, Latinos are disproportionately exposed to air pollution. Nearly 2 in 5 Latinos lives within 30 miles of a power plant and Latinos are 165% more likely than whites to live in counties with the high concentrations of PM pollution. And perhaps the most staggering statistic, Hispanic children are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack than non-Hispanic whites.

Visiting Chile in the midst of a smog alert and seeing images of people in masks in low-income neighborhoods where PM pollution was highest, made me realize the many layers of privilege that I have, both in Chile and the U.S. In that privilege I feel compelled to advocate for smart policies that can make it possible for all Americans to safely breathe the air around them. There are many ways to become involved. You can push for strong action against toxic chemicals that dirty our air, chemicals that can be found everywhere from construction materials to household and personal care products, such as foam cushions and carpets. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families is a great resource for keeping up to date on the latest news and newest ways to address toxic chemicals. Or you can start simply by spreading the word about household products that create fumes and pollute our own homes (check out the Safer Choice option). Secondly, you can support the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a standard passed by the EPA to curb fossil fuel emissions from power plants, making it possible to invest in renewable, clean energy. While the mandate is currently on hold, states are already beginning to implement the CPP to build a pathway to clean energy development that can help keep our air clean and our country powered. Stay informed by visiting the EPA and find ways to advocate for the CPP in your home state. If the CPP is your cup of tea, be sure to read about the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), which as part of the CPP provides an extra incentive for energy efficiency and clean energy investments in low-income communities. There’s a lot to learn, but the resources, the institutions and the people working to address these issues exist and they need our support — use your voice to help build the momentum needed to make a change in our communities.