A Place Where No One Breathes Easy

Blackstone--Foul Air--San Joaquin Valley
Blackstone--Foul Air--San Joaquin Valley

It takes good lungs to be on a marching band anywhere, but it's a particular challenge in California's San Joaquin Valley, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports.

"Oh, I would say 20 or 30 kids probably have asthma in the band," says Mike Hipp, Buchanan High's band director.

Asthma is common on the football team, too. When the air is particularly bad, coach Mike Vogt takes his players inside to practice.

"Football's not a game to be played indoors, but that's a possibility," Vogt says. The air quality has "no doubt" changed the way he coaches.

This stretch of farmland and small cities outside Los Angeles has the worst air pollution in the United States. One child in six has asthma — more than three times the national average.

"Once in a while, I start to cry because I think I'm going to die," Ryan McVicar says. Both Ryan and his brother Robert have asthma.

"It's like something's just punching your throat and you just stop breathing," Ryan explains. "Like you can't get air."

Their mother has no doubt the Valley's heavy pollution is to blame.

"I know that my kids are having to live in this air and it's only going to get worse if we don't get some help," says Gay McVicar.

The 240-mile-long San Joaquin Valley is in part a victim of geography. It's a huge bowl, meaning that polluted air has nowhere to go. On some days it's so dirty you can almost see the thick air you're breathing. The hot gasses are trapped in the Valley and baked in the sun, creating a dangerous mixture.

Sprawling suburbs, busy roads, and intense agriculture all foul the air.

"Essentially, the Valley has a chronic disease, and it's called pollution," says Kevin Hamilton, a registered respiratory therapist. "When you have a chronic disease, you have to change the way you live your life if you want to survive."

As part of the change, people in the Valley check the air quality forecast the way others check the weather. Air quality flags go up each morning at schools, telling kids how safe it is to breathe. Each color has its own degree of warning.

On red days, when pollution is particularly bad, kids like Robert and Ryan wait until early evening to play outside, when the air is a bit cleaner.

Efforts to clean up the air are under way, but they'll take years — not soon enough to let this generation breathe easy.

The American Lung Association has more information. You can reach the office nearest to you at 1-800-LUNG-USA and/or speak with registered nurses and respiratory therapists about air pollution and health or any other lung health issue.