Breathless in Harlem

World Reports

Taylor and her cousin, two of more than 500 neighborhood kids with asthma. © Michael Misner

Something is taking kids’ breath away in a pocket-sized neighborhood in New York City, and the primary culprit is air pollution. Asthma rates among children within a 24-block area in central Harlem are five times higher than the national average, according to the Asthma Initiative, a program administered by the Harlem Hospital Center, the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

You would never think it meeting 10-year-old Taylor, who lives in the heart of the neighborhood. Her smile lights up her central Harlem street of peeling brownstones and apartment complexes. She plays with her friends on the dusty steps, running, climbing on the railings, and occasionally tickling her infant cousin, who also has asthma.

But her mother easily remembers how bad it was the first time Taylor was coughing and suddenly could not breathe. She rushed Taylor to the hospital and watched the doctors put her on a nebulizer—a machine that turns medication to a fine mist to better penetrate a patient’s constricted airways. She was hospitalized for nearly four months, missing Thanksgiving, Christmas, and her birthday.

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