Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=100711
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Jessi Prois/Medill

Jose Nebrida, who calls himself "Captain America," has run marathons in 34 states and says pollution in cities like Chicago makes breathing difficult.


Marathoner calls for better breathing room in Chicago and other cities

by Jessi Prois
Oct 14, 2008


Chicagoan Jose Nebrida carried a 25-pound American flag while running in Sunday's marathon, but it wasn’t the weight that bogged down his performance. It was the air, he said.

Nebrida said he found himself sneezing and feeling weak and thinks air pollution is possibly the culprit. He said those health effects are most prevalent after he runs the Los Angeles and Chicago marathons, and he’s run them both 15 times.

“What happens when you’re running in L.A. is that it’s a basin, so the stale polluted air stays and you breathe it in when your lungs are so open,” he explained.

He said he finds it easier to run in an uphill mountain marathon than it is to run in cities on a day with high pollution rates.

“In mountain marathons like South Dakota and West Virginia, the pollution is so low,” Nebrida said. “We run in the forest on a trail and you’re breathing fresh air. Plus, there’s more oxygen because of the trees.”

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Nebrida became “Captain America.” He has carried the flag in marathons in 34 states to honor the victims and heroes of that day. In his lifetime, he’s run 163 marathons.

Nebrida said he had a heart attack after running a marathon in Oklahoma City. He explained he has high cholesterol and high blood pressure, but added that his cardiologist cited heat and pollution as possible triggers for the attack.

The combination of heat and pollution have been particularly challenging for Chicago Marathon runners the past two years, said Brian Urbaszewski, the Chicago Respiratory Health Association’s director of environmental health programs.

“You have a setup where all the wrong things are aligned in all the wrong ways,” he said.

Urbaszewski explained that ozone, a caustic gas, combined with high temperatures create a damaging chemical reaction leading to a tightening of the body's air passages. 

The ozone level at Chicago testing sites on marathon day varied from 52-58 parts per billion in a one hour concentration, according to Illinois EPA. A level of 75 parts per billion is considered unhealthy, he said.

As a prospective Olympic site for 2016, the city is taking action to ensure healthy conditions for athletes, Urbaszewski said.

He noted a national requirement for a pollution filter on all new vehicles sold after 2007. The filter would catch 90 percent of the pollution that would otherwise come out of the tailpipe.

“One of our efforts is to get those devices on CTA busses that run 24/7, 365,” Urbaszewski said.

Urbaszewski also said modern pollution controls will start to take effect on most power plants by 2016.

“But there are a few [power plants] that won’t be cleaned up by the time of the Olympics—in suburban areas and downstate,” he said. “The Crawford plant on the southwest side [is an] example.”

But this is not enough to stop “Captain America” from running in his hometown city. 

“I run Chicago because I’m a Chicagoan. Plus, it’s one of those marathons that’s flat as a pancake. It’s easy on the legs,” he said. 

Nebrida, a social worker who retired from 30 years working at Chicago Board of Education last year, runs a marathon a month.

He plans to close the year carrying the flag in marathons in Virginia and Tennessee.