As a young boy, my asthmatic lungs knew when harvest started in the nearby farm fields of central Illinois. Without a combine in sight, I knew that the work had begun.
As the corn and soybean particulates swirled in the country air, tears welled with the sharp tightening of my small chest — as I battled my body to take a deep breath.
As I grew older, I learned the hard way to be prepared — regularly taking my control inhaler and keeping the nebulizer nearby would prevent yet another frantic emergency room visit with Mom.
It’s been a while since I’ve lived near farm fields. But even today, as a longtime resident and minister in Chicago, my asthmatic lungs continue to be hypersensitive to air quality.
Like most people, I notice outdoor air pollution and am used to thinking about it. But my asthmatic lungs know that indoor air can be just as dangerous. That inconspicuous indoor air pollution can have devastating effects on the health of our communities.
In a cold Chicago winter, when our homes and workplaces use gas-burning appliances such as stoves and heaters, people with asthma are triggered by the nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide and the fine particulate matter released from burning fossil fuels to heat and cook in our homes.
But poor indoor air quality doesn’t only affect people with asthma. According to a new report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on clean energy, something as common as living in a home with a gas stove makes children 24% to 42% more likely to develop asthma.
Meanwhile this winter, major gas companies are expected to raise our bills by 30% — leaving many already struggling families amid record-high inflation unable to pay their bills on time.
If the startling health effects and high costs aren’t distressing enough, burning dirty fossil fuels like gas for heating and cooking accounts for nearly 70% of Chicago’s greenhouse gas emissions — further perpetuating our shared climate crisis.
I’ve seen the practical implications of a city reliant on fossil fuels in my work. As a minister, I serve a nonprofit organization, Faith in Place, that partners with diverse houses of worship to act on climate change and build healthier communities.
We help our faith partners become more energy-efficient as one solution to the crisis we face. In 2021, we helped our partner houses of worship save over $74,000 and 926.87 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions through our decarbonization program.
However, in our work with these communities, we witness stubborn inequities. The amount of upfront capital required to transition away from fossil fuels is a significant barrier for houses of worship, businesses and individual households alike.
I was able to electrify my home and make the choice to prevent my own asthma attacks and to increase the odds that my young twin daughters will not suffer. Now, I want to see the choice I had the privilege of making for the safety of my family available to everyone.
Breathing clean, safe air should not be for sale.
The Chicago City Council has the power to make this option available to every family today by prioritizing and passing a comprehensive clean buildings ordinance.
An equitable, citywide pollution-free building plan should not only require new buildings to be constructed fully electric and supply resources to convert older buildings — it should also center community voices, especially those in historically divested neighborhoods.
Further, a clean buildings ordinance should empower a community working group to ensure equitable implementation of these policies. Coordinating hubs should also be commissioned to ensure financing and technical assistance are available for families transitioning to electric homes — in addition to implementing affordability protections to make sure renters benefit as well.
The City Council has an opportunity to make a significant difference for all communities that make Chicago a beautiful city by passing an ordinance that prioritizes public health, equitable jobs and affordability.
Clean air cannot wait. The City Council has an obligation to protect the people they serve from dangerous, expensive and outdated methods of heating our homes. For the sake of future generations, for the sake of asthmatics like me and for the sake of all who work, play and live in this great city — Chicago must lead the way for a safer, more affordable future for all residents.
The Rev. Brian Sauder serves as president and executive director of Faith in Place, a nonprofit that empowers people of diverse faiths and spiritualities to be leaders in advancing environmental and racial justice.
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