Most of us take breathing for granted. Really, unless your ability to breathe becomes hampered by exertion, allergies, a cold or a condition, you pretty much take as a matter of function that your lungs are sound. Pastors speak of God breathing the breath of life into His creations, yoga instructors stress the importance of cleansing breaths, every laboring mother relies on her own breathing and those first screams of a newborn to signal healthy lungs and the beginning of life. Even comedians, like D.C.’s Andy Evans, (The Comedy Counselor), encourage laughter as a breathing technique to alleviate stress, depression, and grief. But what happens when breathing becomes impaired?

Approximately 13 million U.S. residents have received a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — which includes conditions like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma and an estimated 13 million more are unaware of their COPD diagnosis. And what was once believed to be a condition largely impacting white males, shows a steady increase among Black women.

Rachel Chisholm, co-author of the study “COPD in a Population-Based Sample of Never-Smokers: Interactions among Sex, Gender, and Race,” found Black women had, by far, the highest prevalence of COPD among older adults who had never smoked.

“We cannot determine causality with this data set, but poverty is associated with increased exposure to toxins, such as second-hand smoke in workplaces and air pollution in inner-city environments,” Chisolm said. “Future research needs to investigate if these factors play a role in the greater vulnerability of African-American women.”

Further complicating the need for research, is the research itself, according to a study published in February 2019 that concluded lumping all Black communities under the category “Black” or “African American” negated the varying habits, lifestyles, and mores of U.S.-born and immigrant Black populations.

“This brings into question the validity of current knowledge, which largely refers to all “U.S. Blacks” as a homogenous “African American” populace in a majority of studies. This assumption ignores the variations in socioeconomic status, tobacco or biomass smoke exposures, behaviors, access to health care, health insurance coverage, and disease management among Black individuals in America,” Chinedu O. Ejike and Mark T. Dransfield noted in “Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in America’s Black Population.”

Historically, these nuances must be noted in order to bring about concrete and measurable positive results. It immediately brought to mind the recent text, Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics by Lundy Braun — that charts the role of innovation and misguided understanding of Black bodies in the use of the spirometer. Designed to measure lung volume and therefore vital capacity, race-adjusted spirometer data, instead, worked to naturalize racial and ethnic differences and misinform clinical diagnoses, preemployment physicals, and disability estimates.

Breathe Easy: The Washington Informer Quick Guide to Preventing & Living with Respiratory Ailments encourages readers to take an active and proactive posture in preventing, diagnosing, and advocating for better breathing. Whether it’s a virus, like the looming COVID-19 or asthma, every breath is precious. Writers have found tips on household contaminants, food triggers, and preventative measures for keeping lungs healthy — and conditioning impaired lungs for optimum comfort.

Read, Learn, Enjoy!

Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman

Dr. Shantella Sherman is a historian and journalist who serves as the Informer's Special Editions Editor. Dr. Sherman is the author of In Search of Purity: Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes...

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