Breath of fresh air from girl, 15, who’s shaken up US purifier industry
RIVERSIDE, Califor nia: Among her many accomplishments, Otana Jakpor, 15, has managed to break up the monotonous atmosphere of airquality hearings. It’s not easy.
Typically, environmentalists spout acronyms and percentages, while industry lobbyists predict the economy will collapse under new rules.
Then the African-American high school pupil steps forward in defence of clean air.
With her sister, Jibiana, 4, and her mother, Karen Jakpor, beside her, Otana told an Environmental Protection Agency hearing that nitrogen dioxide from cars contributes to particle pollution and asthma.
“I urge the EPA to set the best possible standards based on public health considerations, and not to succumb to industry pressure to set weaker standards. Remember, the economic costs of asthma exacerbations are enormous.”
The audience buzzed with praise for Otana.
Since her first appearance at a California Air Resources Board meeting at the age of 13, Otana has aired her concerns regularly. She has won science fairs, received awards from the Discovery Channel and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peo- ple, and ear ned recognition from members of Congress and former president George Bush for her research showing how ozone-producing air purifiers affect lung function.
Eventually representatives from both the American Lung Association and the Southern Califor nia Environmental Health Sciences Centre at the University of Southern California recruited Otana. She is now a volunteer spokeswoman for the ALA and an intern at the Health Sciences Centre.
It all began with an experiment that Otana set up in her living room. Using her mother’s breathing monitors and air purifiers, and her friends as research subjects, Otana tested breathing function before and after exposure to the ozone emitted by some air purifiers.
Otana presented her homemade experiment to the Califor nia Air Resources Board during a 2007 hearing. The board had already endured dozens of speeches from manufacturers who insisted there was no direct evidence that ozone from the purifiers endangered health.
When Otana, then 13, stepped forward, the audience expected an “adolescent” presentation, said Dimitri Stanich, a board spokesman.
But within minutes, Otana had breezed through a PowerPoint presentation of data directly linking the machines to decreased lung function.
She found it did not affect the general population. “However, among the asthmatics, there was a drop of 11 percent in the FEV1 over FEC ratio …”
After that meeting, California became the first state in the country to establish restrictions on ozone from household air purifiers.
Otana knows the suffering that asthma can cause a family. Her mother, Karen, an obstetrician, struggles with severe chronic asthma.
“I was just breathing,” she said. “I was just trying to breathe.”
They had to move house so her mother was closer to a hospital.
Otana was her caretaker. “I think that’s where a lot of her maturity comes from,” her mother said. “She really grew up that summer.”
That maturity has drawn attention from a host of admirers, including politicians, reporters and former teachers.
“I haven’t had a student like this, and I’ve been teaching for about 30 years now,” said Steve Kinney, a seventh-grade science teacher at Woodcrest Christian Middle School which Otana attends.
“For 15 years, she’s very humble and diligent.”
The ribbons and medals Otana has received fill a box that her mother keeps. Otana won’t let her mother display them.
Otana seems generally taken aback by all the attention.
“It’s a little bit weird,” she said. “I’m doing what a lot of other people are doing; I just happen to be younger.”
The teenager appears bemused by the bureaucratic quibbling among regulators, industry and environmental groups over the best way to regulate air quality.
“I did not know until just a few years ago how regulations are set or that there even were regulations for the air quality,” she said. “It’s just like a whole new dimension of things that I didn’t know were happening before, but they’re important things.”
Although the general public doesn’t often attend hearings to debate air pollution regulations, Otana – always the youngest to speak – shows up believing that her work can make a difference.
“I like her boldness,” her mother said. “She’s young enough that she doesn’t have the same view that older people get that we can’t change things.” – LA Times-Washington Post