|Far Worse Than Homicides?
October 20, 2007
I just returned from quick trip to Washington, DC to attend the Childhood Obesity Prevention Summit sponsored by the Leadership for Healthy Communities, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
This was not, by far, my first exposure to the subject. The health impacts of community planning and public policy have been a theme of the Local Government Commission (LGC) for years and a mainstay of the annual LGC New Partners for Smart Growth conferences. Earlier this year, Contra Costa County Health Services put on the Leadership Forum on Health and the Built Environment conference in San Pablo.
However, it struck me yesterday that while violence and homicide continue to dominate the news about Richmond and absorb substantial energy of community activists and a growing part of Richmond’s General Fund, a broader, more enduring and more pernicious health threat is endangering the future of not dozens, but thousands, of Richmond’s young people.
There is no “Office of Active Living and Healthy Eating” down at City Hall, and no one has suggested a tent city to promote exercise and proper diet. Yet far more people will die young or have the quality of their lives severely curtailed by preventable chronic illness related to diet and physical activity than street violence.
Unlike fatal gunshots that rip through the night, there is nothing illegal about these killers -- the triple threats of childhood obesity, diabetes and asthma. Taken together, however, the impact is far greater and affects far more people than even that of our current unacceptable rate of homicides. The phenomenal rise in childhood obesity, diabetes and asthma has been caused by changes over just a generation or two in our environment, culture, lifestyle and community design.
While these trends are nationwide, they are accelerated in communities of color, like Richmond. With perhaps 30,000 children under 14 years of age and a combined African American and Latino population of 60%, or more, the implications for Richmond are staggering.
American children are growing fatter, and Richmond is surpassing the national averages In last year’s State fitness test, fewer than one in five students in the West Contra Costa Unified School District can run a mile or perform other fitness tests in aerobic endurance, body fat and flexibility, and abdominal, lower back and upper body strength to earn a passing grade. (District Officials Are Taking Steps to Increase Physical Fitness Among Students, By Kimberly S. Wetzel, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif. Nov. 25—“Think you could run a mile?”)
Running a mile in ten minutes should not be not a big deal. Three Council members, one over 50 and another over 60, ran three miles in the Home Front Festival 5K run last month (Festival Brings Thousands to Richmond for History and Sunshine, October 1, 2007).
In Contra Costa County, 35 percent to 43 percent of non-Hispanic white and Asian-American students passed the standards in all six areas compared to only 17 percent to 23 percent of African-American and Latino students. The results were similar in Alameda County. Between 35 percent and 47 percent of non-Hispanic white and Asian-American students achieved all fitness standards, compared to 18 percent and 27 percent for African-American and Latino students.
Thousands of Richmond kids will survive street violence only to succumb at a premature age to chronic illnesses that can largely be prevented. Diabetes is the sixth leading cause of U.S. deaths. Rising rates of type 2 diabetes among younger and younger Americans are a huge public health concern. Nationwide, African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely as white adults to have diabetes. In Contra Costa County, African-Americans are 12% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes compared to the bay Area as a whole (5%).
Africans Americans and Latinos, as well as people living in San Pablo, Richmond and Pittsburg, are more likely to die from diabetes compared to Contra Costa County as a whole.
Experts predict that if current trends continue, one in four African American and Latino children born in California will develop diabetes in their lifetime, resulting on increased chronic health conditions such as heart disease, strike, blindness, kidney failure and leg and foot amputations. By adulthood, obesity-associated chronic diseases – heart disease, some cancers, stroke and diabetes – are the first, third and sixth leading causes of death in the United States.
In Contra Costa County, 31% of fifth graders are overweight. In West Contra Costa, fifth graders are 42% more likely to be overweight than the rest of Contra Costa County.
Twenty percent of Contra Costa adults are obese, a rate slightly higher than that of California. African American (32%) and Latino (21%) Bay Area residents are more likely to be obese compared to bay Area adults overall (16%).
In Contra Costa County, about 15% of children 0-14 years have asthma. The hospitalization rate for children with asthma who live in Richmond and San Pablo is much higher than the state average. From 2001 to 2003, the percentage of African American children diagnosed with asthma in Contra Costa County increased from 14% to 26%. In Contra Costa, the hospitalization rate for African American children with asthma is almost five times that of white children.
often lead to asthma (although not all persons with asthma have
allergies.) Numerous studies have shown that asthma attacks are
triggered by exposure to allergens such as dust mites, cockroach
droppings, animal dander and mold among children sensitive to these
allergens. In addition to precipitating asthma attacks, exposure to
allergens may play a role in inducing the onset of asthma itself.
Exposure to fungal and cockroach allergens is more common in inner city
homes, leading to more frequent sensitization to these allergens, and
possibly to greater prevalence of asthma among children in U.S. inner
Children growing up alongside freeways risk having their lung development impaired, which can increase the likelihood of serious respiratory diseases later in life, researchers report. Other studies have shown that children living next to highways are more likely to develop respiratory problems, such as asthma. Long exposure to car and truck exhaust actually affects the growth of the lungs, and hence their capacity.
"Exposure from tailpipe emissions from motor vehicles potentially carries chronic health risks to children's lung development," said lead researcher W. James Gauderman, an assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "We found that kids who live closer to freeways had significantly less lung capacity, compared with kids who lived further from freeways."
In the study, Gauderman and his colleagues followed 3,677 children for eight years, tracking their lung development. The children were 10 at the start of the study, and came from 12 southern California communities. The air quality differed in each community.
The researchers found that lung growth in children who lived within 500 meters of a freeway (about a quarter of a mile) was significantly less than children who lived 1,500 meters or more from a freeway.
Gauderman's group also found that exposure to freeways and regional air pollution had negative and independent effects on the growth of lung function. In addition, there was a significant drop in percentage of expected lung function among 18-year-olds who lived within 500 meters of a freeway.
Healthy eating and a physically active lifestyle can help children achieve and maintain a healthy weight and reduce obesity-related chronic diseases. Children spending more time outdoors in locations away from freeways and public agencies aggressively pursuing policies that result in cleaner air can reduce the incidence of asthma.
For lots of detailed information, see:
Other resources include:
There are many things the City of Richmond and the West Contra Costa Unified School District can do to improve the health of kids: