By Anthony Leslie
Imagine waking up in the morning and not being able to breathe fresh air, or attending a school every day that was secretly making you sick. This is exactly what thousands of San Bernardino residents are experiencing every day due to poor air quality and benign environmental factors. It is also for this reason that San Bernardino Mayor Patrick J. Morris contacted the President of Loma Linda University, Richard H. Hart, MD, DrPH, in order to request that the university assist its neighboring community with these lingering health concerns. Being a Seventh-day Adventist institution, Loma Linda University has always placed an emphasis on answering the call to service. Whether it is in response to the need of our brothers and sisters living on far away continents or our neighbors residing right here in our own backyard of San Bernardino, the mission remains the same, “To Make Man Whole.”
Beginning in the School of Public Health’s Environmental and Occupational Health Department, chaired by Sam Soret, PhD, a study was devised that would research possible causes of the poor air quality and implement solutions that addressed the current health issues of the San Bernardino community. After three attempts to secure funding, due to the tenacity of Dr. Soret and his faculty, the study which centered around three central components, was finally underway.
The first part of the study focused on air quality surrounding Ramona Alessandro Elementary, a school located near the BNSF South San Bernardino Railyard. It was hypothesized that the poor air quality was due to this close proximity of the railyard to the school. Children were screened for asthma and other pulmonary disorders and this data was compared to that of students attending South Tamarind, another San Bernardino elementary school of further proximity from the railyard. Department assistant, Johanny Valladares, MBA, recalls, “A lot of work went into this program, but everyone, including elementary school principals, faculty, and university staff pressed together to make it happen!” Efforts were also made to ensure that the children were on board as well. Incentives such as a pizza party for the class that brought back the most signed parental consent forms were given, along with a pirate skit which was performed to teach the children about air pollution at a level that they could understand.
The second component to the study revolved around the rest of the community surrounding the railyard. Surveys, interviews, and focus groups were all conducted to collect data from these communities. This study was truly all-encompassing, not only addressing the school life of the children, but also the home component of the community as well. To maintain the integrity of the study, communities with similar socio-economic factors along with physical characteristics were chosen for data collection. Incentives for the community participation included gift cards to local stores and facilities.
The study which commenced in January of 2011 is set to conclude in March 2013. Although results have not yet been published, Dr. Soret has stated that there are a number of manuscripts in preparation to relay the dynamic findings of such an immense research program. Secondary data is also being analyzed by John Morgan, DrPH, of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Department, which centers on national cancer statistics in relation to the narrow area surrounding the aforementioned railyard. With all the information being accumulated, it is only a matter of time before evidence is ready to be presented to policy makers and legislators in order to better address community health concerns. However, Dr. Soret and the many others assisting with this cohort study are not waiting for government officials to step pick up the slack. The project has really become a group effort as students from the Global Health Department, along with faculty from Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Health Policy and Management, Health Promotion and Education, and other respective department members from the School of Public Health have teamed up to formulate and implement and action plan for this year. Dr. Soret made it clear that it was simply not enough to go into these neighborhoods and collect data and information on the residents as if we were simply studying mice in a laboratory. “We have a responsibility to these people,” he stated. Three solutions that will be implemented right away are mitigation and outreach into communities, attempted policy changes, and bridging the gap between health care needs and community access. One such way this is being done is by travelling “Breathmobiles” which are mobile medical clinics that screen children for asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and provide referral packages for families of high-risk children.
Through all the toil and effort that has gone into such an extensive research program, one is reminded of the story in Mark 12:28-31 where Jesus is asked by a scribe “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’ reply sums up all of the commandments into two bullet points, “love God, and love your neighbor as yourself, for there is no commandment greater than these.” It is a wonderful thing to help those in foreign lands who are impoverished and in need, but as Dr. Soret and the Environmental and Occupational Health Department have proven, charity often does begin right here at home.