At first glance, Calexico's Enrique Camarena Junior High School doesn't seem all that unusual. A central concrete courtyard -- the "quad" -- sits among a tidy cluster of buildings that clearly were originally intended for temporary use, holding classrooms and administrative offices. Beyond the buildings and a small athletic field with about half a dozen basketball courts, a neat chain-link fence marks the edge of the school grounds.
The school sits literally at the edge of town. Calexico's easternmost housing development sits just across Rivera Avenue, a wavefront of housing seeming about to break across the desert. In the other direction lie farm fields, right now flat and brown baking dust in the autumn sun. Sometimes the dust kicks up and blows onto the school grounds, making it hard to breathe. In the winter, when Imperial Valley farmers burn stubble in the fields to make way for the next crop, it gets even harder. The occasional dose of drifting pesticides doesn't help matters.
And though its location poised between suburbs and farm fields makes it seem as though Camarena Junior High could be anywhere in California, look south and you'll see something that sets this school apart from most others in the state. Only a mile away stands a tall, imposing fence with a major city on the other side: Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico.
In other words, Camarena students don't just breathe in ambient desert dust, particulate matter and pesticides from farm fields and thick smoke. They're also breathing the airborne debris of a major industrial city with seriously lax environmental regulation. Mexicali's diesel smoke, factory emissions, and stack gases from the city's huge natural-gas-burning power plants need only a breeze off the Sea of Cortez to waft across the border and land on Enrique Camarena Junior High School.
According to the California Department of Public Health's four-year Border Asthma and Allergies Study (BASTA) study, Imperial County kids aged fourteen and under in are admitted to the hospital for asthma treatment at three times the rate of their counterparts statewide. One in five Imperial County kids ages 5-14 surveyed by BASTA said they'd been diagnosed with asthma, with one in eight saying they'd had an attack in the last year. The students at Camarena Junior High are no exception. At an age when many kids have energy reserves and motivation that can exhaust the healthiest parent or teacher, on bad days some Camarena students can find themselves struggling for enough oxygen to stay conscious.
Of the Calexico Unified School District's students, many have limited English proficiency and 39% live at or below the poverty line -- demographic factors that make it harder to get access to health care, already a problem in medically underserved Imperial County. Students with serious asthma often seek treatment in Mexicali; kids with less-dire cases may just hang on, barely maintaining, for years.
This isn't the amusing asthma you see on situation comedies, a marker of nerd-dom that recedes with a few hits off an inhaler. This is the kind of asthma that sends you to the hospital for weeks, the kind that incapacitates the most athletic kids. The 2009 BASTA report bears a note dedicating it to Marie Dugan Delgado, a Sophomore at Southwest High School in nearby El Centro, who died of asthma in May 2009 as the report was being prepared.
In mid-November, a group of state and federal agency staff, media people, and activists visited Camarena Junior High as part of the Imperial County Environmental Justice Enforcement Task Force's "Toxic Bus Tour," held as part of the fourth annual Imperial County Environmental Health Leadership Summit, organized by the local Environmental Justice group Comite Civico Del Valle. A panel including Camarena's principal Carlos Gonzales and three eighth-grade students -- Marcelo Castro, Adrian Lopez and Adam Pina -- addressed the tour, telling stories about the effects of asthma on the students' well-being. All three students spoke of spending weeks in the hospital during summer months when ozone levels peak. (Ozone, along with particulate matter, is a major cause of environmental asthma.)
The staff at Camarena Junior High have instituted an Air Quality Flag Program. Staff log on to the Imperial Valley Air Quality website several times a day, note the alerts posted on that site under "current conditions" as reported by the nearby monitor on Ethel Street in Calexico. Depending on that site's report on current levels of ozone and particulate matter in the area, the staff raise a colored flag on the flagpole in the quad to mark the degree of threat the air happens to pose students at the moment.
Depending on the color of the flag, teachers -- especially in P.E. -- amend their planned activities to safeguard the students' health. Green is the "all okay" color, flown when the air poses no significant threat. A yellow flag means that extremely sensitive students should be monitored for breathing problems. When the orange flag flies, kids with asthma take their recess indoors and other kids have their outdoor activities lightened. A red flag, which means the air quality is unhealthy for all, means all kids recreate indoors.
The program isn't an answer to the problem, by any means, but it does provide teachers and students with a framework for mitigating the worst of the effects of Imperial County's filthy air. The American Lung Association has observed that asthmatic kids who feel some control over the management of their ailment not only suffer fewer attacks but tend to do better in school. With any luck, the kids at Camarena Junior High will graduate with the tools they need to defend their health, and the health of the community they live in.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.