Thursday, September 12, 1996
Dirty air is getting personal

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

My friend Ernie Waits can't breathe, and he's trying to figure out why.

When I say he can't breathe, I mean an ambulance picked him up twice this year and took him to University Hospital's emergency room. He was revived, but barely. He carries an inhaler and a formidable array of drugs. Just to stay alive.

He almost died in February and August, and he doesn't feel so good right now. ''The air is killing me,'' he says.

Although Mr. Waits is not somebody who exaggerates, he is sort of a troublemaker. And I say that with reverence.

At Woodward High School in the early 1930s, he protested the school's policy forbidding blacks to use the swimming pool. Later on, he pushed his way into movie theaters, restaurants and Coney Island. He insisted qualified black teachers ought to be able to teach in any public school. A troublemaker, bless him.

The FBI was worried that Mr. Waits was a Communist in the 1950s, but he was pleased to meet with the Ohio Un-American Activities Committee to clear up any questions it might have. He was not a Communist; he was a union leader.

There is a difference, he explained. ''And I told them I was black, not Red.''

His careers included becoming the first black registered investment counselor here and the first disc jockey to put music by black artists - blues, swing, jazz - on mainstream radio. Now's he's known as a ''retired contract compliance specialist and employment consultant.''

I'm guessing that's gobbledygook for ''holding people's feet to the fire until they obey the law.''

I like to think of him as a human-rights advocate. He likes that, too. ''I'm a human relations specialist now,'' he says, ''which is what I've been doing all my life, promoting understanding between people in all walks of life.''

Tailpipes and smokestacks

Right now, he's trying to understand air pollution. ''Somebody's poisoning my air. It's being spewed from tailpipes and smokestacks.'' It does get pretty thick around here, I said, why don't you move?

''This is my home,'' he says, sounding a little offended. He grew up in the West End, then lived in North Avondale and now in Williamsburg Apartments in Hartwell. He's 75, so I suppose he could say that he was here first.

According to a recent study, 617 Cincinnatians may die prematurely this year after inhaling airborne particles. That doesn't sound too high unless you think that might be you and 616 other people.

Instead of buying a condo in Arizona, Mr. Waits gathered a bunch of our government people - federal, state and local - to see what he could find out. There was a blizzard of paper, and some very accommodating and dedicated people explained how they try to catch polluters and the progress they're making.

They are definitely on our side. And, by the way, if you would like to know whom they've caught and cited recently, you can find a list on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) home page at http://www.epa.gov/ARD-R5

Eugene M. Langschwager from the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce explained about all the important industrial programs aimed at cleaner air. Ernie Waits said he thinks maybe some companies are falling through the cracks. He named two of them. The government people took notes.

If you'd like to rat somebody out, you can call a local 24-hour hot line (651-9437) or fill out a form on the Internet. William L. MacDowell of the federal EPA promises they check out all tips.

As for me, I tried to look as though I knew a particulate from a toxin and doodled furiously, thinking about all the kids I know who have asthma and wondering how my friend Buddy, who's even older than Ernie, is breathing these days.

Mr. Waits was officially representing a group of about 100 elderly people who live in Hamilton County and who unofficially believe they're suffocating. He promised them some answers.

It's a simple question, really. Ernie Waits just wants to know why he can't breathe.

Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and on NPR's Morning Edition.