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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 15th April 2016 > sucking a on tailpipe

sucking a on tailpipe

In Detroit’s industrial suburbs, toxic air is destroying generations of black residents while local and federal officials twiddle their thumbs

Jacqueline Cason

didn’t expect

to be crawling down the stairs of her own damn house at 38 years old. Back in Mississippi, her asthma was annoying but manageable — a puff from an inhaler now and again. Then, just over a year ago, she moved into a little modular home on a quiet street in River Rouge, Michigan, a tiny city of 7,000 that kisses the southern edge of Detroit. Now she’s awakened in the morning, three days a week, at least, sometimes seven, by an asthma attack. She gasps, desperately sipping the air but inhaling little or none. “It’s like being a fish out of water,” she says.

When it hits her, Cason’s lungs fill with mucus while her esophagus walls swell nearly shut. Her diaphragm responds by contracting faster, pressing on her lungs, desperate to catch some air, making her gasp rapidly, violently. Her chest feels like someone is sitting on it, collapsing her sternum toward her spine. Minutes become enemies, and letting two or three pass is too many. So when she forgets to leave her rescue inhaler by her bed, she gropes and crawls down the stairs to find it. It’s the sort of thing that no one would consider ordinary — unless you’ve been living in the industrial suburbs south of downtown Detroit a long time. Then it passes for routine.

Cason’s son is 10, and he doesn’t have asthma. “Not yet,” Cason says. She’s worried that staying in River Rouge too long will change that. In these parts, it’s easy to feel like everyone has asthma, since so many do. The last time Cason went to the doctor, he told her to move. She’ll try to eventually, she says, but the rent is low here, and the neighbors are nice. “It’s a community, like back in the day.” During the last snows, she says, the whole block was outside, digging one another out.

MONEY TRAP: Cason’s doctor told her to move away from River Rouge because of her worsening asthma, but rents are low, and she can’t really afford to pull up stakes.

If Cason had known about the pollution, she might have picked a different city. But she’s here now. Her grandmother lives down the block, her son is settling into his new school, and her niece just moved up to join them. But her niece also has asthma, and it got dramatically worse when she arrived: She has attacks almost as often as Cason. The two of them are in and out of urgent care so often that Cason has a standing prescription at the pharmacy for the strong type of steroids they give you in the emergency room. It isn’t any way to live. “I like my neighbors, but I like my health much more,” she tells me while sitting on the velour sofa in her pristine living room. It has to be pristine; letting dust settle is asking for trouble.

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