In the News
When Home Makes You Sick: Asthma and Children in Oakland
Every night, Guadalupe Muñoz lays awake listening to her 7-year-old daughter Carla breathe. If she hears a whistling in Carla’s chest, she knows an asthma attack is imminent.
Muñoz, who works in housekeeping at a local hotel, lives in a two-bedroom apartment with her two daughters in Oakland’s Seminary neighborhood. In an interview conducted in Spanish, Muñoz said she is certain it is her home that is causing her youngest daughter to suffer from asthma and eczema.
“Ever since I got to this apartment there was mold in one room, in the room I slept in,” said Muñoz, who was living in the apartment while pregnant. “But I never imagined that this problem was going to affect me or my daughter.”
Muñoz is not alone in being concerned about how her home might be impacting her family’s health. Mold, pests, and deteriorating, lead-based paint are common housing complaints filed by community members with the city of Oakland code enforcement department, according to a 2018 report on health and housing in Oakland. After a complaint is filed, a code-enforcement officer inspects the home, and if they confirm there are problems, the city gives the owner of the property 16 days to fix the problem. The city of Oakland defines substandard housing as conditions that risk the health and safety of household residents and the public.
County health workers and housing specialists we interviewed said mold and pest infestations are common problems they see when visiting the homes of asthmatic children living in Oakland. Scientists have linked exposure to mold, as well as to cockroaches, rodents, and other pest infestations, with asthma.
For many families, moving to a healthier apartment is not an option as rents in Oakland have skyrocketed and there is a shortage of affordable housing. Fear of displacement and retaliatory rental increases means many tenants are hesitant to complain to landlords or authorities about potential health hazards in their homes.
Childhood asthma is linked to substandard housing
Decades of housing discrimination helped shape the racial and economic demographics of neighborhoods in Oakland and across the United States. New research, coupled with community advocacy, shows that the Black and brown residents of Oakland are more likely to be exposed to outdoor air pollution from industrial polluters and roadways and suffer disproportionate rates of disease and death as a result.
Mortgage lending practices like redlining, a government policy that started in the 1930s and allowed real estate and banking industries to discriminate based on race, helped white families become homeowners while keeping non-white families in rental properties, often located near polluting industry and roadways. Even today, rental properties are more likely to be in disrepair than owner-occupied homes, meaning tenants are more likely than homeowners to be exposed to health problems like asthma that are tied to poor housing conditions.
Asthma is a common respiratory health condition that can affect adults and children, but in Oakland, children of color are more likely to suffer from asthma than other groups. Black children and children living in poverty are more likely to visit the hospital due to asthma than any other group, according to a 2018 joint report on health and housing in Alameda County, prepared by the Alameda County Public Health Department and Healthy Homes Department.
Just like there is no universal asthma trigger, there is no single factor that causes someone to develop asthma, but it is thought to be related to genetics, environment, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Oakland, some of the main factors associated with asthma are related to air quality, specifically outdoor air pollution and indoor air contamination, said Anne-Kelsey Lamb, director of the Oakland-based Regional Asthma Management and Prevention organization.
The COVID-19 pandemic made existing respiratory health problems worse
Health workers were worried that a confluence of risk factors in 2020 would lead to a spike in the number of hospital visits for Oakland children. Asthma is a known risk factor for COVID-19, which targets the respiratory system. And due to pandemic-related lockdowns, people were spending more time inside their homes, which for some Oakland residents meant more time in contaminated air or crowded spaces. That, compounded with more smoky days from wildfires, had health workers bracing for an influx of emergency-room visits from asthmatic children.
However, Oakland health workers we interviewed said anecdotally that there was a substantial drop in the number of children visiting the emergency room for asthma in 2020.
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Originally published by Oaklandside