Sierra Magazine

One Small Step

Little Lobbyist Makes a Case for Clean Air

Samantha Hermsen Wauwatosa, Wisconsin
Fifth-grader and environmental activist, age 10

"I’ve had asthma since I was eight years old. I’m on soccer and basketball teams, but when I exercise or when there is a lot of exhaust in the air, I have trouble breathing and my chest hurts. I use my inhaler before I play sports, which isn’t very fun. It tastes bad, too. Some days are worse than others; it’s not that bad when I’m not doing anything, but even then sometimes when I breathe in a lot of car fumes, my chest will really start to hurt. We live pretty close to a highway that the government wants to widen. That’s one reason I went to Washington, D.C., to say I didn’t like that idea.

"I’d never been to Washington before. I went with my mom. She has a friend who’s in the Sierra Club and who knew about my asthma. Last year, her friend asked me to be on a postcard for the Club. [The postcard, addressed to Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle, quoted Samantha about her condition and thanked him for using $500 million earmarked for highways to fund schools, firefighters, police, and local governments instead.] That’s when I started learning about the connection between air pollution and asthma.

"We went to the offices of Wisconsin senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold and I talked to their assistants. I told them how hard it is to breathe when the air is bad. I was hoping they’d pay more attention to pollution and stop widening highways around where I live. I mean, if it’s wider, there’s more cars and more exhaust. I was kind of nervous at first but then I got used to it. I’d never done anything like this before. I think they listened. I hope so."
—interview by Marilyn Berlin Snell 

Take a deep breath: Atlanta, Georgia, prepared for the 1996 summer Olympics by upgrading its public transportation system. A 2001 study by the Centers for Disease Control showed the city’s winning results: During the games, traffic congestion dropped by 22 percent, air pollution by 28 percent, and asthma attacks by 44 percent.

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