Breathing is so fundamental, we forget that it happens, until suddenly it doesn’t. Asthma attacks clamp down the airways, and air can no longer get through. Without oxygen, we can only live about three minutes. Asthma can kill.

Asthma is linked to poor air quality (triggering attacks) and a lack of access to health care (people unable to afford the expensive medications that can save their lives). Chicago’s rates of asthma deaths are twice that of the national average.  And some neighborhoods in Chicago have twice the number of asthma hospitalizations and deaths than the city as a whole.  One of the worst hit areas is Southeast Chicago (encompassing neighborhoods such as South Chicago, the East Side, Hedgewisch, Roseland, Pullman and more).

Up until the 1980s, the people living in the area accepted polluted air in exchange for jobs in the many steel mills operating in Chicago’s industrial corridor.  Then the steel mills shut down, leaving their industrial wastelands behind. Today, some of that contaminated land–right next to the Calumet River–is receiving heaped up piles of petcoke, the carbon dense waste produced by extracting oil from the tar sands of Canada.

For the Summer Service Partnership’s asthma week, we learned about environmental health from Tom Shepherd and Peggy Salazar with the Southeast Environmental Task Force, and Josh Mogerman from the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “Just because of our racial or socio-economic status we cannot have different water or different air,” said Mr. Shepherd. “We don’t believe people need to tolerate environmental degradation for their jobs.”

Mr Mogerman was blunt. “Petcoke is a blight.” It is carbon heavy with minerals and metals including sulfur, selenium, lead and nickel. “What does inhaling heavy metals mean for human health?” he asked. “We don’t fully know.”

SSP 2014 asthma BP refinery

British Petroleum’s Whiting, Indiana refinery. This is the world’s second largest producer of petcoke. 600,000 tons of oil are extracted from the tar sands each day. Petcoke is considered a “hazardous material” on the grounds of the factory, and must be handled carefully.

SSP 2014 asthma petcoke train

As soon as petcoke is off the factory grounds, it is considered a “byproduct” and can be transported like any other good. This is a train transporting uncovered piles of petcoke into Chicago.

SSP 2014 asthma Tom Shepherd petcoke

Tom Shepherd from the Southeast Environmental Task Force showing the SSP students the growing piles of petcoke along the banks of the Calumet River.

SSP 2014 asthma petcoke piles

Petcoke piling up.

SSP 2014 asthma clubhouse partial

Ending the morning at the scenic Harbourside Golf Course, on the site of Chicago’s old landfills, now repurposed with cement, soil, and greenery to create rolling hills with golfing greens. We visited the clubhouse for a deliciously satisfying lunch .