Transportation is main source of air pollution affecting children in Pilsen, health experts and activists say

Car spewing smog on a street in Pilsen
Gases and fine particles expelled by vehicles are harmful to children's health in Pilsen. (Diana Giambona/MEDILL)

By Diana Giambona
Medill Reports

Children play on the swings, go down the slides, spin on the small merry-go-rounds and play ball at Harrison Park in Pilsen. It seems like a perfect day for outdoor games, but the air they breathe has pollution levels among the highest in Chicago, according to a 2020 air quality and health report from the city.

The playground is surrounded by streets where cars, buses and lots of trucks regularly pass, emitting gases and polluting particles that  — although tiny and not visible to the naked eye — fly and reach the lungs of residents, especially affecting children.

The Pilsen Neighbors Community Council organized a virtual panel discussion in February focusing on air pollution with experts from different fields educating Latino parents on the impacts of air pollution and what to do.

In Pilsen schools, “in a classroom of 30 students, at least four have chronic asthma,” said Gloria Barrera, member of the Illinois Association of School Nurses (IASN) and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments (ANHE). “Symptoms are exacerbated by hazardous air pollutants caused by the buses that drive them to and from school.”

Some Pilsen residents expressed their dissatisfaction with the situation and worry about living in an industrial corridor that is one of the city’s most polluted neighborhoods.

“Whether you have children or not, it’s a troubling issue for all of us who live here,” said Edwin Alvarez, 45, who has been living in Pilsen for about 38 years.

Consuelo Ortiz, 48, said she has considered moving out of Pilsen because of the pollution.

“It affects everyone who lives here,” Ortiz said. “Pregnant women, children and the elderly.”

The concentration of air pollution varies in Chicago neighborhoods. A map of the city based on Chicago Department of Public Health data shows that South Side and West Side neighborhoods in industrial corridors have disproportionately poor air quality. These areas coincide with low-income, African American and Latino communities.

“We see that in many communities of color and low-income communities, there are disproportionately more industrial boilers, chemical plants and refineries,” said Mimi Guiracocha, manager of health promotions at the American Lung Association in Illinois, at the virtual meeting. “People of color are 3.6 times more likely than white people to live in a county (in the U.S.) with failing environmental ratings.”

Pilsen is in an industrial corridor and most properties are next to or within 400 feet of truck routes, according to the city of Chicago. These factors contribute to air pollution in the neighborhood.


Source: Air quality and health 2020 report – City of Chicago | Illinois Childhood Asthma Surveillance Report, 2011-2014 – Illinois Department of Public Health

The map showing the neighborhoods with the worst air quality closely matches the map showing emergency department (ED) visits for asthma. Areas with the worst air quality are linked to places with the highest rates for ED visits for children. The maps demonstrate how air pollution and asthma are correlated.

Experts point out one of the main sources of air pollution in Chicago is transportation. Industrial corridors and highways generate heavy truck traffic and diesel fuel emissions. This is not an issue that affects this city; it is a widespread problem throughout the country.

“The U.S. transportation sector is the leading contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change,” Barrera said.

Air pollution affects the health of all people, especially children, the elderly and people with pre-existing health conditions.

“One in 12 children in the U.S. currently has asthma, a life-threatening respiratory condition, which can range from mild to severe,” Barrera said.

A boy playing at Harrison Park
Parents go with their children to play at Harrison Park, located next to West 18th Street. (Diana Giambona/ MEDILL)

“I know a child (in Iowa) who has never gone outside to play in the winter because he has asthma and when the dry, cold air is combined with fine-particulate pollution, the child ends up in the hospital,” said Karin Stein, an Iowa field coordinator of Moms Clean Air Force and EcoMadres, — organizations that works to protect health from air pollution and climate change — who attended the virtual panel.

Air pollution also contributes to climate change, which causes weather conditions that affect people’s respiratory systems.

Guiracocha explained in her speech that due to climate change pollen seasons are longer and more intense, and that is detrimental to all those who suffer from asthma.

“Ozone and particulate pollution are the two main air pollutants that can adversely affect our health,” Guiracocha said.

To illustrate the gas’ impacts on people’s health, she said ozone acts similarly in the lungs to what happens when a person gets sunburned in summer.


“Cook County has gotten an F for ozone pollution,” Guiracocha said. “Chicago is the 18th most ozone-polluted city in the United States.”

Guiracocha said such high levels of pollution can have both long-term and short-term consequences. Air pollution can also harm pregnant women and “fetuses can be affected and born premature or with lung disease,” she said.

On Jan. 6, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a proposal to strengthen a key national ambient air quality standard (NAAQS) for fine particle pollution, also known as PM2.5.

EPA’s proposal process will start with taking comments on strengthening the primary annual standard from a level of 12 micrograms per cubic meter to a level between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a news release.

Organizations such as Moms Clean Air Force are calling for stricter legislation.

“We advocate for the EPA to reduce to 8 micrograms per cubic meter because it will prevent roughly 46,000 annual clinic visits, and it will also save lives and premature deaths,” Stein said during the panel.

Data available from the Chicago Health Atlas shows that children ages 0 to 4 years old visit the ED the most due to asthma symptoms, followed by children ages 5 to 17 years old. The figures show that non-Hispanic Blacks are by far the most frequent ED patients due to asthma.

“The health of everyone matters. All children, regardless of immigration status, have the right to breathe clean air,” Stein said. “Environmental justice has to be equal for all.”

Access to health care is another problem faced by children in low-income communities.

Mobile Care Chicago is an initiative that seeks to provide free care for all children suffering from asthma or allergies. Their Asthma Vans go around the city with a medical team composed of nurses, medical assistants and doctors to offer a full range of asthma and allergy care.

“It’s important to ensure children who have issues breathing have an opportunity to be diagnosed by a medical provider as young as possible,” said Matt Siemer, executive director at Mobile Care Chicago.

Siemer explained that a child with asthma who has access to regular medical care can have a similar lifestyle to a child without asthma in terms of school grades, social development and quality of life. However, a child without access to proper medical care and medication may not have the same opportunities.

Asthma Vans provided by Mobile Care Chicago have traveled throughout Chicago for 23 years providing medical care in different communities to ensure children with asthma and allergies receive appropriate care and medication.

“One of our objectives is to partner with local schools to make medical care as convenient as possible for people to access,” Siemer said. “Parents who don’t get time off work often can’t keep up with all the appointments that their child will need.”

Children playing at Harrison Park
Children playing in Harrison Park’s playground are exposed to pollution from surrounding vehicles. (Diana Giambona/MEDILL)

In an attempt to monitor air pollution, the Chicago Department of Public Health has been working to control emissions from industry and factories. Now, however, the focus is on transportation emissions.

“Our major responsibility for the city historically has been overseeing and making sure that factories and plants that have emissions are well within the limits that are designated for those operations,” said Dr. Ajanta Patel, medical director of chronic disease, prevention and health promotion at the Chicago Department of Public Health, during the panel.

“We don’t have direct regulation in the auto industry, but we do indirectly through quality zoning, fleet electrification and equitable access to electric vehicles,” said Dr. Geraldine Luna, medical director for the COVID-19 initiative at the Chicago Department of Public Health and executive board director of the Medical Organization for Latino Advancement (MOLA), who also spoke at the meeting.

One of the solutions proposed by experts to reduce transportation emissions is to increase the use of electric vehicles.

“Analyses have shown that fully zero-emissions buses will be cheaper to purchase and operate than diesel buses,” Barrera said. “Let’s put our national school fleet on a clear path to 100% zero-emission all-electric vehicles by 2035. It really is a win-win for all.”

Guiracocha agreed and said that “if there is a switch to zero-emission and clean energy transportation, there would be health benefits over the next 30 years, and it will be possible to prevent 5,410 deaths and 138,000 asthma attacks.”

Air pollution is an area of concern for many citizens. According to a survey by the American Lung Association in the U.S., 88% of respondents supported the EPA meeting stricter air quality standards.



Diana Giambona is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @DianaGiambona.