Healthy Air, Healthy Kids

William Rom

Dr. Yadira Caraveo is being honored as a Champion of Change for her work on the front lines to protect public health in a changing climate.

Growing up in Colorado, you learn to appreciate clear blue skies and fresh mountain air – until the smog settles into the bowl-shaped Denver metro area, and suddenly the view isn’t so pretty.  During our training medical professionals like me don’t receive much education on the potential health effects of what humans put into the air.  We learn about bioterrorism, the negative effects of the food we put into our bodies, and the lung diseases affected by things as varied as keeping pigeons to popping too much popcorn.  But we never really learn about the cloud of “smog” sitting over Denver and how it will affect our patients. 

Upon graduating from medical school, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico to complete my training in pediatrics.  Albuquerque is another bowl-shaped city flanked by mountains, where bad air can settle and linger for days.  Living near the extinct volcanoes on the city’s west side, I could see the occasional cloud of smog settled over the city as I would drive into work.  On those days I knew what I would see all day at my shift in the emergency department, the children’s ward, or the urgent care clinic: asthma exacerbations.  On days where a brown blanket covered the desert city, I knew I’d be ordering a lot of albuterol, a medicine to help people breathe easier, putting kids on oxygen, and speaking to respiratory therapists.  It would be a day of seeing children struggle just to breathe. 

The focus on child advocacy drew me to residency in New Mexico.  I was interested in learning about how to interact with politicians and candidates, advocate for increased healthcare access in a poor state, and protect the public programs my patients relied on.  I was selected as a resident leader by the National Hispanic Medical Association and an intern in legislative affairs by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  I spent time in Washington with both groups and connected with members of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Voces Verdes.  I participated in a conference on the public health concerns caused by emissions from coal-fired power plants and finally learned what I hadn’t been taught in medical school. 

As a Latina, I am naturally drawn to Latino health issues.  Nearly 50 percent of Latinos live in counties that regularly violate the ground level ozone, or smog, standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, even though our standards for clean and safe air should be even stronger.  EPA estimated that further lowering the level of ozone considered safe would prevent thousands of asthma exacerbations, heart attacks, missed days of school, and hospital visits and deaths.  Obviously clean air affects everyone, but children are at a higher risk of these health effects than the adults who have the power to control pollution.  Due to young children’s size, faster heart rates, and immature systems, their lungs and brains are particularly vulnerable to toxins in our air, water, and environment.  Exposure at an early age could spell years of chronic illness and an impaired ability to learn, play, and work.  Through UCS and Voces Verdes, I advocated for tightening emission standards for coal-fired power plants, and I continue to raise awareness about the health effects of climate change and air pollution. 

Since leaving residency and starting private practice in Colorado, my advocacy efforts have shifted in part to local healthcare access issues in my hometown county and streamlining the referral system for children at risk of physical and cognitive delays due to various issues.  But every time I drive down the hill into Denver and see the brown cloud hanging over the city, I worry for my patients and think of what else we can do to ensure that our children are not just eating healthy, growing, and learning but breathing safe air. 

Dr. Yadira Caraveo is a General Pediatrician.

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