Tacoma kids have stake in our industrial future

Robin Evans-Agnew teaches nursing and healthcare leadership at University of Washington Tacoma.
Robin Evans-Agnew teaches nursing and healthcare leadership at University of Washington Tacoma. Courtesy photo

This week, as we continue an important debate about the future of our city and the Tideflats (this time over interim land-use regulations), I urge you to listen carefully for the voices of youth.

You might not hear anything. Yet what we choose to do with Tacoma Tideflats has everything to do with the youth and children who will grow up to inherit whatever messes or opportunities we create through this process.

It is timely that our city is setting future directions for controlling pollution in an important West Coast urban environment at a time when Gov. Jay Inslee has been in Bonn, Germany. He helped lead a delegation of the United States Climate Alliance to the 23rd annual United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Two of the five targets in the UN’s climate goals involve the voice of youth: awareness and education “for mitigation, adaptation, impact reduction and early warning” and involving “women, youth, and local and marginalized communities” in planning and management.

Yet youth from the Tacoma area do not have a delegation to send to Bonn, yet.

Environmental health matters. Our children may inherit more than opportunities for employment, education and self-sufficiency; they will inherit the immediate and long-term global environmental health effects.

We have an obligation to assure the urban environment in which they live, work, play, go to school and worship is clean and healthy. Youth have a lifetime stake in what happens inside the Tideflats.

Emerging scientific research indicates that in addition to asthma, cancer and heart disease, the health impacts of air pollution extend to obesity, arthritis and dementia. I know this because of my experience caring for kids and families with asthma.

By virtue of their size, children are vastly more at risk to toxic air pollution. Up to 15,000 youth in Pierce County have asthma, a chronic condition precipitated and exacerbated by air pollution.

Marginalized youth living in communities surrounding the Tideflats, such as Fife and Tacoma’s Eastside neighborhoods, are especially vulnerable. Poor kids, including many children of color, have twice as many asthma hospitalizations as do wealthier white kids with the disease.

Indicators already demonstrate that the Pierce County environment is less healthy than our neighbors to the north.

The death gap between Pierce and King counties is around two years. We received a failing grade for fine-particulate matter air pollution in the 2017 American Lung Association State of the Air report.

Think back to the forest fire pollution last summer and remember what it’s like to breathe air polluted with fine particulates. These are long-term environmental health challenges that will take time and grit to solve.

Youth have important ideas and perspectives on improving our region. As the debate over the Tideflats intensifies, let us innovate ways to include youth voices in our planning process.

We should be asking children for their input and their vision for a healthy environment in contexts that are youth-friendly and appropriate. We can all start this conversation with the children in our own lives.

The next time you get a chance to ask a youth about what he or she wants this region to look like in the future, you might be surprised what you discover.

Robin Evans-Agnew is an assistant professor of nursing and healthcare leadership at the University of Washington Tacoma. Reach him at robagnew@uw.edu.