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Asthma: An entire family sick, a mother's campaign

By Jazmin Zane, UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, Health DATA Program

Martha Cota remembers her son’s fight for life.  She can still see his purple lips and nails.  She can still hear the awful sound of hospital respirators.

That was 20 years ago.  The culprit?  Asthma.  It had put her son in the hospital.  Then, another of her four children was also diagnosed with the chronic respiratory illness.  Fast forward to the present, and Cota’s grandson, who lives near the 710 freeway in Long Beach, Calif., is also showing signs of asthma.  And on October 5, 2009, Cota herself was diagnosed with cancer.

Why is this family so sick?

It wasn’t until a neighbor in the east Long Beach community where Cota lives invited her to a local community meeting on the port of Long Beach, that she made the connection.  Cota now believes her family’s health issues are directly related to air pollution in Long Beach, and specifically to the port which, along with the port of Los Angeles, is responsible for most of the nation’s shipping traffic — and a huge amount of pollution.

“It had a big impact for me” Cota  said.  “From that moment on, I dedicated myself to the cause and to learning more so that I can tell other families what is going on and not to be fooled.”

For Cota, asthma wasn’t just personal anymore.  It was political.

“Everything that is contaminating our environment is also contaminating us, our children, our families, “Cota said.  “And it is not just my son with asthma. There are thousands of children with asthma. There are many premature deaths due to the contamination of the air.”

Recent chemotherapy hasn’t slowed her down. “I have cancer but that does not stop me from staying in the fight and telling families to keep moving forward.”

So what can communities do in response to poor air quality? Cota’s answer: Get involved!

“Keep moving forward. Keep contacting legislators and other municipal leaders,” Cota said. Persistance pays off.

Cota herself has participated in numerous campaigns to improve air quality at the ports, and to stop the expansion of the 710 freeway.  She has even gone to Sacramento to share her personal story with legislators.

Cota is a recent graduate of the ALERT Project, an initiative run by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research Health DATA Program’s to pair community advocates with experts and data that can help them make a credible case for a cleaner environment.   

“The scientists and us can really work together,” Cota said.  “This is the main reason we have opened the doors of Long Beach to UCLA. We want to work as a team. We don’t want the science to be on one-sided. We want to work collectively.”

Through ALERT, Cota became aware that other Los Angeles communities such as Boyle Heights were also struggling with pollution.

“They are going through the same thing and we knew nothing about them. This to me was very impacting,” Cota said.

Cota also works with the Long Beach Alliance for Childre with Asthma, encouraging families with sick children to keep fighting for health equity. “There are many families that look to me for strength, knowledge, guidance,” Cota said. “We can never allow ourselves to quit because in life there are many problems that WE have to resolve.”

How have you fought for better health in your community?  Tell us your tips and techniques by leaving a comment, below.

Related Resources:
ALERT Project (UCLA Center for Health Policy Research)
Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma 
Case Study: Long Beach Oversight Committee – I-710 Freeway Major Corridor Study

Tips on how to use data in policy and advocacy:

Advocacy tools and Guidelines
Advocacy Tools and Guidelines: Promoting Policy Change
The Health Advocacy Toolbox 


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