Elizabeth and Andrew Hauptman, along with their son Oscar, advocate for clean air.
METRO DETROIT — Struggling to breathe has become all too common for 12-year-old Oscar Hauptman.
His mother, Elizabeth Hauptman, said Oscar’s asthma is triggered the most on hot summer days, limiting his ability to play sports, be active outside and even breathe.
“He will start coughing, and he’ll tell me that it feels like somebody is sitting on his chest. I know that we’ll have to use his rescue inhaler the entire way home, until he gets to his nebulizer, and if his nebulizer doesn’t work, we’re rushing to an emergency room,” she said. “It’s scary for all of us but especially for our kids.”
Michigan has one of the highest asthma rates in the country, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and now data show that Detroiters are far more likely to have asthma than the rest of Michigan’s population.
“Over 250,000 children here in Michigan have asthma, and about one in four folks in the Detroit ZIP code have asthma,” Hauptman explained.
The MDHHS reported that the rate of asthma hospitalizations was at least four times higher in Detroit than in the rest of Michigan between 2016 and 2019. Data show that approximately three times as many people died from asthma in Detroit between 2017 and 2019 as did in all of Michigan and that adult Detroiters had a current asthma prevalence 46% higher than those in the rest of Michigan — a figure up from the 26% in 2016.
Researchers from the United States Environmental Protection Agency have long linked asthma with exposure to air pollution.
In Michigan, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties are three of 12 counties across the state with an F rating from the American Lung Association’s 2022 State of the Air Report due to high ozone days and particle pollution.
The data are alarming to Hauptman, a field organizer for the Michigan chapter of the advocacy group Moms Clean Air Force. Moms Clean Air Force is a community of more than 1 million people nationally — and more than 34,600 moms and dads across Michigan — united against air pollution and health impacts on children.
EPA officials say ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the most threatening air pollutants to human health.
Ground-level ozone occurs when sunlight combines with chemical emissions derived from the burning of fossil fuels in motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, gasoline vapors and chemical solvents. Even at low concentrations, officials say, ozone can trigger a variety of health problems, including lung irritation and inflammation, asthma attacks, wheezing, coughing, and increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses.
Airborne particles can come from atmospheric chemical reactions or from wildfires, construction sites and the burning of fossil fuels. This pollution, officials say, can cause chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, decreased lung function, coughing, painful breathing, cardiac problems and heart attacks as well as a variety of serious environmental impacts, such as acidification of lakes and streams and nutrient depletion in soils and water bodies.
In Michigan, Moms Clean Air Force works actively to fight for cleaner air by advocating for the transition of the state’s school bus fleet to electric, defending the state’s Clean Car Standards and working to protect families from PFAS chemicals, air pollution from industrial facilities and mercury pollution.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are chemicals used to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water in everything from clothing and furniture to food packaging and nonstick cooking surfaces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, and they bio-accumulate in wildlife and humans. They may affect reproduction, thyroid function and the immune system, and they may injure the liver, according to the CDC.
“There are so many solutions that we are working towards, like asking for stronger tailpipe protections, transitioning into electric school buses, that type of thing, so we can move forward on helping our kids and finding solutions for these problems,” Hauptman said.
Moms Clean Air Force offers a variety of opportunities for public engagement and advocacy.
“Everything from education to getting involved with meeting with your representative to insist that they do things that will protect our kids from the impacts of pollution and poor air quality,” Hauptman said.
Nicky Marcot, a longtime volunteer for Mom’s Clean Air Force, said she became involved with the organization in 2019 after reading an article about how climate change was impacting people’s decisions to have children.
“A friend sent me an article about climate change and how young people and adults around the country in their 20s and 30s were choosing to not have children because of the future of the planet. I had never thought about climate change in that light before.” She said it made her want to “become active in a way that I could help make a difference regarding climate issues.”
With three children under 8 and a busy schedule, Marcot had limited time to advocate.
“I knew I had space while the kids were napping, I had space in the evening and space on the weekends, so based on that, I was able to do as much as I was able — which, in that case, usually constituted maybe a total of two to three hours a month worth of activism,” she said. “Organizations like Moms Clean Air Force do a really good job of providing their volunteers with opportunities that are manageable, not overwhelming, easy and effective.”
Whether it was logging in online and doing a five-minute testimony in front of the EPA, taking a picture of herself holding a sign stating how much she cares about the air her kids are breathing, signing a petition or signing a letter, Marcot knows she is making a difference.
“There might have been months where I did more — for instance, I took a trip to D.C., and that was an entire weekend. But most of the time, it was just five or 10 minutes here or there,” she said. “When you have millions of people across the country taking five or 10 minutes here or there, it makes a huge difference.”
And their work seems to be paying off.
In November, the EPA announced that school districts in all 50 states and the District of Columbia will receive funding to replace diesel school buses with zero-emission electric models.
In Michigan, approximately $54 million in U.S. EPA grant awards will fund 138 electric buses in 25 Michigan public schools and districts in Alcona, Armada, Au Gres-Sims, Beecher, Bessemer, Britton, Cassopolis, Chesaning Union, Dearborn, Deerfield, Harbor Beach, Hartfield, Homer, Hopkins, Jackson, L’Anse, Mayville, Ojibwe Charter, Pellston, Pentwater, Pontiac, Sand Creek, Ubly, Unionville-Sebewaing and Ypsilanti.
To learn more about Moms Clean Air Force, or to tour an electric school bus, attend the Oakland County Earth Day Climate March, Rally and Fair 9 a.m.-1 p.m. April 22 at Centennial Commons Park, on Troy Street in Royal Oak. The event, which is free and open to the public, will feature various organizations like Moms Clean Air Force.
“There are all sorts of ways and opportunities for folks to be involved at every level, and you don’t have to be a parent to get involved with Moms Clean Air Force,” Hauptman said.