When the breathing isn’t easy

Soot and smog levels in the suburbs and the city are dangerously high


Mick Dumke


A generation after Congress passed the Clean Air Act, people in much of the Chicago area—including the north and west suburbs—regularly breathe in levels of soot and smog that endanger the long-term health of children, according to a Chicago Parent investigation.

And while pollution is often associated with the city and its heavy industry and traffic, many of the suburbs, including Evanston, Northbrook, Cary, Des Plaines and Naperville, have air as dirty as Chicago’s, our analysis of state environmental data shows.

Polluted air can shorten lives and is particularly hard on children, whose developing lungs are vulnerable to toxins known to cause asthma and other chronic health problems.

Doctors and environmental experts say it’s no coincidence that the region has some of the nation’s highest rates of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

Yet elected officials continue to resist a push to get tough on polluters.

“This has major health impacts,” says Dr. Steven Boas, a pediatric pulmonologist from Glenview.

The north suburbs register some of the highest soot and smog levels in the region. On days when air pollution is particularly bad, Boas says, calls to his office spike from parents whose children are having breathing problems.

“A lot of these chemicals are so reactive they can induce an inflammatory response in the airways and cause damage to the lungs,” he says.

“You know that if you go out and burn your skin every day, it’s not good for you,” says Rebecca Stanfield, an environmental attorney with the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization. “Well, it’s like that [breathing] in a high-ozone area. You burn your lungs every time.”

Stanfield and other advocates say the state legislature and governor could help, but legislation requiring tougher environmental standards frequently stalls or dies in Springfield.    

Boas says healthy children can recover quickly from limited exposure to toxins, but studies have long shown kids simply shouldn’t inhale soot, also called particulate matter, or smog, also called ozone, which can scar lung tissue. These pollutants can trigger asthma attacks and, in the long run, cause cardiovascular problems—even heart attacks.

For generations, Chicago’s economy was based on factories that pollute heavily. And while regional air quality has improved in the last 35 years, the federal government this spring declared Chicago was violating acceptable standards for smog and soot.

“We’re on kind of a treadmill,” says Brian Urbaszewski, director of environmental health programs for the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago. “Yes, the air’s getting better, but more people are having breathing trouble.”

Slow-cooking effect

After consulting with the lung association and the state, Chicago Parent analyzed data collected over the last seven years by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. The Illinois EPA periodically tests smog and soot levels at dozens of sites across the six-county Chicago region.

On the upside, the figures show Chicago-area residents encounter only a few intense periods with dangerous pollution levels. In other words, it’s unlikely that children will ever find a black cloud choking their soccer field. Instead, the region’s pollution has more of a slow-cooking effect: The soccer fields are probably consistently cloaked in air that, while never horrible, is never as clean as it should be.

Similarly, because wind blows airborne toxins from one area to another, some of the region’s seemingly idyllic suburban spots have air nearly as polluted as those near industrial centers. For example, between 1997 and 2003, the latest year for which pollution figures are available, a testing site on Chicago’s Southeast Side—not far from heavy industry along the south shore of Lake Michigan—registered the highest average ozone levels.

But levels in north suburban Zion, Waukegan, Evanston, Northbrook, Cary, Libertyville and Des Plaines were nearly as high. In each case, the testing sites repeatedly recorded eight-hour periods when ozone levels were higher than 0.08 parts per million—a rate considered unacceptable by the federal government.

Ozone (smog) forms when airborne chemicals are baked by the sun, so it is most concentrated on the hottest days. Breathing it essentially scalds the lining of the lungs, potentially leaving them less able to process oxygen.

Most ozone ingredients originate in old coal-burning power plants—Illinois has 23, including six in the Chicago area—as well as exhaust from cars, diesel trucks, buses and equipment.

“Everyone gets up, starts their cars in the morning, factories fire up—you get a big puff in the morning,” says Urbaszewski. These ingredients for ozone cook as the day heats up.

Both the city’s Southwest Side and the Joliet area have coal plants, and winds tend to blow from the south or southwest, carrying the pollutants along. “That’s why you’ll see stuff up north or on the north lakefront,” he says. “It’s at the tail end of the pipe.”

Soot and particles

Soot—pieces of dust or droplets of liquid about 1/20th the diameter of a human hair—travels in different ways, ending up in areas that aren’t always considered focal points of pollution—such as the western suburbs.

As with ozone, Chicago’s particulate matter problem isn’t in short-term, intense concentrations. But the average, long-term soot levels are too high.

When inhaled, the particles can become trapped in the air sacs of the lungs, then enter the bloodstream. Particulates may contribute to heart attacks, and some of the chemicals they contain are carcinogenic.

Studies have found that children exposed to particulates over long periods of time have higher rates of asthma and bronchitis.

Urbaszewski says some particulate matter comes straight from factory smokestacks or automobile exhaust pipes. Other matter forms in the atmosphere when chemicals react.

Chicago Parent’s analysis found the state recorded high soot levels across the metro area. Leading the way are industrialized areas such as Summit and Lyons Township, southwest of Chicago; west suburban Cicero; and the city’s Northwest and Southeast sides.

Perhaps more surprising is that the suburbs of Naperville, Northbrook and Des Plaines frequently exceed federal soot standards. For example, Naperville’s yearly average registered above the federal standard of 15 micrograms per cubic meter three of the past five years.

Dr. Jay Shannon says respiratory problems can have a number of causes, many of them untraceable. But Shannon, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Cook County’s John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, says air pollutants are undeniably dangerous. “These kind of things can cause what we call ‘bronchial hyper-responsiveness’—twitchy airways,” he says. “When they’re present above a certain amount, they can cause a reflexive reaction: A person who has asthma may walk out into that environment and immediately develop symptoms. … And the other thing about children is that their air passages are smaller anatomically, so they sometimes are the leading edge, if you will, of what you see in the population.”

Breathing ‘poison’ air

Sandra Peña doesn’t need any more convincing. Her oldest daughter, Clarisel, had her first asthma attack before she was 1. After weeks with a cough, the little girl started struggling for breath.

“She was crying, and the little holes in her shoulders by the clavicles started sinking,” recalls Peña, who lives with her family on Chicago’s Northwest Side. “So we took her to the emergency room.”

Clarisel recovered by the next morning. But three months later, she went through the cycle again.

Peña knows a lot about respiratory problems through her work as a nurse on the Mobile CARE Foundation’s asthma vans, traveling clinics that treat children across the city. Yet this time she was stumped—until she smelled the diesel fumes seeping in through the windows of the family’s basement apartment.

The windows opened onto an alley that, starting around 7:30 each morning, was full of trucks idling as their goods were unloaded at a nearby grocery store. The heavier the traffic, the more trouble Clarisel had breathing.

“I think the air was poison,” Peña says. “It’s really funny—you say it’s funny because you don’t want to cry—but we had to come inside to get some fresh air.”

That didn’t always work, though. Even with the windows shut, the fumes found their way in. Peña tried installing an air conditioner and enrolled Clarisel in a school that started early so she could be out of the house before the trucks arrived.

Eventually, the family moved. Clarisel didn’t have another attack for years. “Some of our neighbors moved, too,” Peña says. “They said it was too polluted.”

Clarisel now knows how to control her asthma with medication and she avoids the fumes that build up outside her school when buses line up at the end of the day. When her family drives on the expressway, they have to keep the windows rolled up, even though their old car lacks air conditioning.

To Boas, this is sound thinking. He suggests parents keep their kids away from heavy traffic and limit outdoor activities when the weather forecasters predict poor air quality.

“You should also know where your kids are playing. If they’re in a field next to a road with tons of cars, it’s really not a good idea,” says Boas, who leads the Glenview-based Children’s Asthma, Respiratory and Exercise Specialists. “It doesn’t mean you have to eliminate activity altogether, but you can reduce the likelihood of having a problem.” 

Peña doesn’t think her family is in the clear quite yet. Her two younger children, Kyrie, 8, and Daniela, 5, sometimes have nagging coughs.

The air outside the family’s current home is better, and she tries to keep them indoors when it’s hot and hazy. They can’t stay inside all the time, though. And when old cars or trucks drive by, the kids start coughing.

“We just started with the air conditioner ... and we already noticed an improvement: Last night nobody coughed,” Peña says.

Still, she thinks it’s “just a matter of time” before Kyrie and Daniela are diagnosed with asthma, because “I don’t think the air’s going to be [much] cleaner as they get older.” 

Parents don’t have to feel helpless about air pollution, according to physicians and environmental health experts. They note it’s never a bad idea to cut back on driving, or to press school officials to make sure bus exhaust isn’t getting into classrooms. Parents could also push elected officials for tougher regulation of power plants, diesel engines and other pollution sources. That’s the only way things will change, in the view of state Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park). This spring, May wrote a bill, now awaiting Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s signature, that would create a new position in the Illinois Department of Public Health to monitor the effects of environmental toxins on children. But May can tick off a list of other environmental bills that died in Springfield, including ones addressing idling school buses and trucks and indoor air quality at schools. May doesn’t think she’ll get a more receptive audience until she finds a way to fund a study showing that it’s cheaper in the long run to clean up the state’s air than to pay for the health care costs created by pollution. “I’ve found that when we can prove the costs, that’s when we get the naysayers,” she says. But as it is, “we don’t have a strong environmental legislature. … I think that parents need to find out more about this and make sure their legislators know about the [potential] health care costs.” Anne Rowan, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, says the Blagojevich administration has taken a tough stand against air pollution, citing programs to take old lawnmowers out of circulation and help school districts reduce diesel emissions from buses. Illinois has also challenged what it considers a lax Bush administration policy on mercury pollution. She also urges people in the Chicago area to drive less. “The governor has taken many steps to go beyond federal requirements,” she says. “We do have an ozone problem in the city of Chicago [and surrounding area]. All major cities have an ozone problem. ... We’re always striving to do better, but from the Illinois EPA’s perspective, we are making progress, and even going above and beyond in many areas, because it’s very important for public health.” “The state could create tighter emissions standards for power plants by administrative rule”—a single signature from Blagojevich—says Rebecca Stanfield, an environmental attorney with the Illinois Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization. For now, though, she sees no signs of movement. “When we start having ozone-action days, the news will tell parents what to do” to keep their kids safe and healthy, Stanfield says. “But they won’t say who’s responsible.” Mick Dumke


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