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UNNATURAL CAUSES ...is inequality making us sick?
Rebroadcast Fridays at 10PM, October 9, 16, 23, 30, 2009. Dates and times may vary. Check local listings.
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Stories About Health Equity – Community Struggles

Unhealthy Diet
- Gina Morris, Washington, D.C.

I grew up in the projects in NW DC. I can tell you first hand that it is hard to stay healthy when the closest stores are "corner stores" that carry a few canned goods, ridiculously high priced bread and milk, along with liquor and lottery tickets. We lived miles away from a grocery store and did not own a car. We walked (to save bus fare) once or twice a month and dragged mostly vegetables (fruit was too high) home in a cart. These vegetables were not pristine.

I remember my first trip to a suburban grocery store. I thought I was in heaven!!! The floor was spotless, the building was huge and well lit, and there was mist trickling down on the mountains of veggies and fruits! It was a wonderland to me :).

My neighborhood friends grew up eating oodles of noodles and whatever they could buy from the ice cream truck. I was fortunate that my mom was home (because of illness), she could at least try to fix me a meal. Other kids parents worked day and night, or was on drugs and basically left them to feed themselves.

I am thankful for this documentary because it lets people know what challenges poor people face everyday. People seem to assume (crazily) that poor people choose to be poor. Or that they are the causes of their plight.

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Health and Chronic Stress
- Daniel, Iowa

I am a gay male who has been under tremendous stress throughout my life and subject to bullying and discrimination.  I didn't see anything in your documentary on gays, but I can definitely relate to the idea that health and chronic stress go hand in hand. 

I was diagnosed with lymphoma at age 24. Lymphoma is not hereditary; it is believed to be associated with environmental causes.  I have five brothers and sisters, and all but one is in fairly decent health for their age and lifestyles. 

I truly believe my lymphoma could have been triggered, at least in part, by the daily stress of keeping my emotions bottled up and not letting the community see me for whom I am, but rather who I try to portray to avoid nasty comments and bullying.

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Living the Disaster Lifestyle
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Phyllis Parun, New Orleans

Here in the "new" New Orleans, we are on a daily basis confronted with stress, depression, disorientaion, anger, helplessness and a myriad of emotions because of changes in our lives since the flood of 2005.  There is a loss of buildings, jobs, place, and belongings, along with displaced family and friends. 

Even when we try to block out the changes and go on with our lives we are reminded constantly by some physical event of the failure of government programs to help, tortured by the weather bureau - which calls everything from a drizzle to wind a storm, or bombarded with psychic warfare by Homeland Security, which named our city No. 1 in the nation for a potential terrorist attack. 

Living here one cannot escape reminders of having survived a disaster.  I am beginning to wonder what the health toll is on each of us and I organized an emotional support group at my local library as a safe place where people can gather, share experience and support each other by active, empathetic listening and directives when needed.  Staying healthy requires some social support, I believe.

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Living at the Bottom
-Sylvia Mcwhite, Atlanta, GA

I was totally enthralled with the PBS airing of your series. I am 38 years old and I have high blood pressure and diabetes. I have these conditions because of the ridiculous amounts of cortisol that flow through my body on a daily basis. My husband used to have a good paying job with the post office. Due to a geographical move, he switched jobs. Things just got worse from there and now we are among America's working poor with six kids to take care of.

We don't fit the stereotype. I homeschool my kids, I am highly intelligent, my kids are gifted, I love Latin and literature. None of that matters when you are at the bottom of the social ladder. We eat organic on food stamps.

I'm sicker since I became poor. I live with an unbelievable amount of stress. Right now we're facing eviction. How can this happen in the richest country in the world? The idea that I have no control over my life and have no resources or power is depressing to me. I hope for change but.... I want so much for my children and I will fight to the death for it. Too bad it may be a death much sooner than should happen.

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Unhealthy Neighborhoods
- L. L. de la Paz, San Diego, CA

Here in San Diego, a place called Barrio Logan is at the crossroads of shipyards, small industrial companies and freeways. The air is unhealthy, leading to breathing problems among school children and people living in that area. Ironically, a new downtown ballpark promised revitalization but still has not materialized. High-rise condominiums sprout downtown with magnificent views of the bay but looking down you can see the dilapidated neighborhoods surrounding the area.

Barrio Logan is always showcased when politicians come to visit but they always use it simply for photo ops and nothing gets done after they leave. San Diego fosters the image of paradise but underneath the glitter is a sad and dark reality. As gentrification of the old neighborhoods happen, a lot of people and small businesses are also being displaced. Some neighborhoods are starting to resemble Tijuana which is just 15 miles to the south. Street vendors are ubiquitous in some areas as zoning laws become too stringent for businesses. A few miles south on I-5 is National City which is running amok with eminent domain that if left unchecked will turn it into nothing but a playground for speculators and developers.

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After Electrolux
-Tamlyn Nichols, Greenville, MI

I worked for Electrolux for five years and in all of that time I was able to see my doctor whenever I needed to. Now I can't even see him for the flu let alone for my fibromyalgia. Because of that, my health has gone from fair to really bad.

I'm not the only one, though. There are several people in the same position as I am in. We don't have enough money to pay the bills let alone go to a doctor. I feel that when Electrolux went to Mexico the people of Greenville got screwed royally.

[Editor's note: Hour 4 of UNNATURAL CAUSES focuses on Greenville, Michigan, and the consequences of Electrolux closing a large factory there.]

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Extreme Weather
-a professor, Oberlin College

My first summer in Chicago was 1995, the year of the big heat wave. I was a graduate student, living on the 3rd floor of a walk-up, and even with a ceiling fan and two portable fans blowing directly on me the heat was unbearable. On the hottest day, the temperature reached 125 degrees with the heat index, dropping only to about 100 at night. Several friends and I fled to someone's air-conditioned apartment and slept on the floor. Other times we adapted the best we could: escaping to a movie theater or mall, sticking our heads in the freezer, or taking a cold shower and going straight to bed damp.

Later, I heard frequent accounts of people who were not so lucky: mostly low-income elderly people (many of them African American) who lived alone and were unable or afraid to leave their apartments. I remember being struck by the extreme tragedy of these stories. As a struggling grad student, I thought I had it rough, but here were people with health problems holed up in their apartments because they were afraid of being mugged, not turning on their fans because they were worried about paying the bill, and living in such isolation that they had no one to turn to for help.

Back in 1995, Chicago wasn’t organized enough to have community emergency centers that would provide you with water or fans, or if it did, the locations weren’t broadcast on the radio and television like they are today. Now you’ll hear announcements telling people to go ahead and turn on their fans and not worry about the electricity bill because the utility company would subsidize the cost, and social workers will fan through neighborhoods making sure more people are okay.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg has a very interesting book on this subject. He tells the stories of people who survived and examines the social circumstances that made a difference. He also looks at widespread policy failures and the larger racialized context of the catastrophe - sound familiar?

Anyone who has lived in Chicago knows it’s a place of extreme temperatures: bitter cold in the winter, oppressive heat in the summer. Seeking comfort and survival can feel like a full-time job. But the ’95 heatwave, like Hurricane Katrina, exposed underlying problems that run much deeper than reminding people to cool off.

Having lived through that experience, it’s shocking to realize that it wasn’t just the heat that killed those people in 1995, but also poverty, isolation, and neglect. I hope your series helps all of us take a good, long look at what we can do to prevent things like this from happening again.

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