Our Right to Breathe: A Personal Story

While we worry a lot about the quality of our food              and water, how often do we think about the             quality of that other necessity of life, the air?     Smoke, scents, chemicals pervade our outdoor and our indoor air. For someone with asthma, clean air can be a matter of life and death.  Robert Starkey, anti-smoking activist, writer, and person with asthma reflects on how a struggle to breathe has changed his life:

“When I  ‘came down with something’ on that warm spring day in April 2007, I imagined it would be like all the similar struggles throughout my life. Some had lasted six to eight weeks. I could always measure the slow progression toward recovery, hanging onto every tiny positive change in order to convince myself I would survive. But in 2007, the slow progression was immeasurable for months. I was forced to accept that my life would never return to what I had known before….”

This spring approaches the third anniversary of the end of my former life. In those nearly three years of acceptance of this new reality, I have the memory of one afternoon on Lake Roberts in the mountains of New Mexico, when I was actually able to breathe. After such a long struggle with illness, the act of breathing deeply into my lungs, filling them with sweet clean air was startling. That brief encounter with normal breathing is now the foundation of my understanding that I am not really sick. I am the canary in the coal mine. It is the environment around me that is sick and my body is doing what a body is supposed to do. It’s warning me to get away from the poison that is threatening my life. But in 2009, that poison becomes more pervasive everyday. There are not enough mountaintops left in the world to run away to. And even if there were, they would also be consumed by the cancer that is spreading more rapidly everyday.I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve 2009. In San Francisco, in December, there have been  21 days of air pollution out of 31. Some of those days are characterized by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District as “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” But the majority are characterized as “moderate.” As a conscious breather, I know the truth. Whenever the measurement of pollution levels have become an inconvenient truth to industry, instead of tightening regulations, they loosen the standards. Moderate has become the adjective of choice for reframing extreme situations. On “moderate” days I wake up with splitting headaches, wheezing and shortness of breath. On moderate days the horizon is a brown haze…

…I am the canary in the coal mine. I care about you, even if you do not care about me. If you think this is all a bunch of crap, then I pity you, because I know as sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, eventually you will be in the same position I am in now. As a canary it’s my job to know this. So when you find me lying in the bottom of the cage, the last breath stolen from my lungs, you will know for sure that it’s too late for you!

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