Let’s Breathe Together

Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?” -Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Alice scrubbed the stove with a rag while the black spot stared at her like an evil eye. The day before, a cabinet in the kitchen had abruptly fallen off the wall, dumping cans and dishes and spewing a bag of protein powder all over the room. The culprit was dampness and mold; in the spot where the cabinet had hung, several dark furry patches lay exposed. Alice was angry, frustrated, and just wanted to pretend like she hadn’t seen it. “Just have to get rid of this dust and trash and air out the room, and it will be fine” she declared resolutely.

The next day Alice woke up, wheezing, with a tell-tale crackling feeling in her lungs and a tightness in her chest. It felt bad, and then it felt worse, and when it got so intense she could no longer sleep through the night, she went to stay with a friend. 24 hours later, Alice was in an emergency room with an oxygen mask, doing breathing tests. She told doctors about the mold, mentioned she had an episode like this the previous year (she had) and waited hopefully for answers.  Doctors chalked up her issues to seasonal allergies and largely dismissed the severity of her symptoms. “You’re getting 90% saturation and your EKG is normal” they said. “You probably have allergy induced asthma.” They put Alice on a regime of inhalers and steroids and sent her away. She wanted to be angry, but to some extent, she understood: Alice went to the ER on March 14, just as the reality of COVID19 was hitting Texas, and just a few days before the lockdown. Medical staff, who were busy with patients in crisis, had no time to solve her non-critical issues and probably viewed her as some type of hypochondriac, making a emergency mountain out of an allergy molehill. And their attitude made her doubt herself: maybe it wasn’t so bad? Maybe she was overreacting?  

Over the next month, Alice dutifully cycled through regimes of medications. Two puffs on this inhaler in the morning, an anti-allergen for lunch, and a steroid pill in the evening.  She also did breathing exercises, took Mucinex religiously, and hung herself upside down for 3-6 minutes at a time to clear her lungs, as a friend who experienced chronic pneumonia suggested (It helped tremendously–she could feel gravity pulling the fluid out of her chest). Her symptoms would lessen, but she didn’t feel like she was getting better. The heaviness in her chest was steady, and every few days a breathing attack would level her, putting her out for several hours as she lay prone.  After waiting for 6 hours in an online queue to see yet another doctor via video conference, Alice begged him to give her antibiotics. She told him she thought she had a secondary infection and her symptoms just were not going away. He relented, but told her he could no longer order a Z-pack (the coverall of antibiotics) since it was being used to treat people with COVID19 and was under a lot of scrutiny. He hooked her up with a two week regime of amoxicillin. Slowly, Alice got better; the tightness in her chest relaxed, the pain on one side lessened and disappeared. Her lethargy decreased. And she breathed passionately. Full, deep breaths of air. It felt so, so good. And Alice was so grateful. But she still prayed for dry days, and still had no answer to her question: Was it the mold that made her sick, or something else, or a combination? How could she prevent it from happening again in the future? 

According to the CDC, the long term effects of mold on the lungs are as bad as smoking–meaning a lifetime of breathing problems, including a greater risk of COPD. Those who are allergic (likely Alice) and those with other underlying breathing conditions will feel it most immediately, and intensely. Millions or people like Alice live in water-damaged homes that are susceptible to mold (her house, damaged by localized flooding partly caused by the construction of a nearby highway through the neighborhood, has been dried out a bit since she improved it, but the mold still lurks). Some don’t leave because it is the place we know, and the prospect of leaving after many years, after developing relationships with our neighbors, and after making a home, seems impossible. 

Most, however, likely don’t leave because they cannot afford to, and don’t even have the luxury of weighing the comfort of social relationships and stability against the need to protect their own health. They may not even know they have mold, and it is possible that a landlord with a compromised building won’t tell their residents.  This is especially true of communities impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Houston. Inundated properties, which are more likely to be inhabited by people with little means, take years to dry out properly. Drywall must be replaced, dehumidifiers mobilized, and regular testing applied. For some, this regular vigilance and expensive maintenance will not occur, leaving residents vulnerable. They are forced to live without answers in eroded environments while their landlord, in some distant suburb on higher ground, collects their rent. (Even more reasons to love the capitalist class).

The story of mold, and air, and the slow poisoning of people’s bodies through poor air quality is just one story of many stories about the relationship between systemic oppression, particularly racial oppression, and eroded environments. Like Hurricane Harvey, the COVID19 pandemic has both laid bare and exacerbated this reality. The news reports that those who are dying from the virus are black, brown, and poor. What is not being acknowledged and not reported is that the deaths of these people are hastened by the eroded conditions in which they are forced to live. It is both ghoulish and worthless to point out again and again the gruesome specter of death statistics by race if we are never going to talk about why this is so.

Race continues to be a greater predictor of living in an eroded environment than class, though class is second, and this was the case long before the pandemic. These eroded environments include both urban places, like black neighborhoods where highways buzz and where industrial uses flourish, spewing air pollutants that corrode the lungs of residents (see recent reporting that the people of cancer alley in Louisiana have been hard hit by the virus) and rural places, such as the lands of the Navajo, where everything from methane to radon (from soviet era uranium mines) have been poising people slowly over the last century. The recent presidential order to lift decade long restrictions on air pollution in order to spur industry will make this even worse. 

News reports acknowledge that income-insecure people are being sacrificed on the front lines (in grocery stores and Amazon trucks) to keep the engine of capitalism weakly pumping. These people are the most likely to get the virus because they cannot stay home, but once they return home, the conditions of their home–such as air quality–are a major factor in whether they will live or die. As we know, the assumption that home is safe, an OSHA-approved space with decent air quality, is false. For many people, this is not the case: they may spend the day in e ventilated office, or outdoors, or in an environment more carefully managed than their own home. The workday may be an escape from conditions that harm. That is no longer the case.

Alice can breathe again. Others can’t. We need to breathe together. We need to recognize the people who can’t breathe, and acknowledge our complicity in accepting and even exacerbating environmental apartheid. Our nation has ghettoized non-white people into valleys of death, while protecting its white electorate in hastily constructed suburbs or tall elegant townhomes, both far away from the nasty and toxic uses that drive our economy. As the governor of Texas prepares to reopen Texas for business (likely in the hopes of avoiding unemployment claims, soothing the fears of the megachurches, and satisfying the relentless bloodthirst of the oil and gas industry) he offers willingly and knowingly to continue to sacrifice oppressed people for the benefit of a few.  The expression ‘gaslighting’ is taking on new and ever darker meanings in these times, as politicians not only deny the recommendations of epidemiologists today, but deny the long history of unequal treatment and unequal spaces installed and maintained through violence.  

The inequality of space is the inequality of race, and it is so enshrined in our society it is even in the air we breathe. As the death toll of COVID19 rolls on, we must keep in our sights the truth of the matter: Those who perish are not the victims of the virus so much as the victims of an uncaring, racialized system that marked them for use, abuse, and death at birth. Access to health care is a human right, but so is access to living and sleeping conditions that are safe. That we have provided large sectors of the population with neither is a dark mark on our society, a hex that casts a curse on our culture and poisons our future. Alice can breathe again, but others never will. We have to tell the truth about why they are dying. 

Image: A picture showing the true color of black mold (rhizopus sp) spores, using Light Microscope, Normal image without any coloring or processing: By Ramy algayar – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65059690

Special thanks to contributing scholar Jamie DeAngelo for the production of this work.

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