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Youth's vigor makes a strong impression in environmental hearings

15-year-old Otana Jakpor has attended dozens of air-quality meetings and EPA hearings, presenting data from her experiments and advocating for tighter restrictions to improve public health.

August 26, 2009|Amy Littlefield

Among her many accomplishments, Otana Jakpor, 15, has managed to break up the monotonous atmosphere of air-quality hearings. It's no easy task.

Typically, environmentalists spout acronyms and percentages, while industry lobbyists predict the economy will collapse under new rules.

Then the 5-foot-6 African American high school senior steps forward in defense of clean air.

"My name is Otana Jakpor, and I am a senior at Woodcrest Christian High School in Riverside," she began at a recent Environmental Protection Agency hearing on nitrogen dioxide regulations. Dressed in a black suit, with her sister, Jibiana, 4, and her mother, Karen, beside her, she told the panel that nitrogen dioxide from cars contributes to particle pollution and asthma.

"I urge the EPA to set the best possible standards based on public health considerations, and not succumb to industry pressure to set weaker standards," she concluded. "Remember, the economic costs of asthma exacerbations are enormous."

The panelists cracked a rare smile and the audience buzzed with praise for Otana. By then, many of the health and environmental advocates knew her by name.

Since her first appearance at a California Air Resources Board meeting at the age of 13, Otana has aired her concerns at conferences and federal hearings. She has won science fairs, received awards from the Discovery Channel and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, and earned recognition from members of Congress and President Bush for her research showing how ozone-producing air purifiers affect lung function.

After watching her present her study, representatives from both the American Lung Assn. and USC's Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center recruited Otana. She is now a volunteer spokeswoman for the association and an intern at the center, getting up at 5 every morning to catch the train from Riverside to Los Angeles.

Speaking at a conference in Los Angeles earlier this summer, Otana drew laughs with a story about how the former EPA chief said he would appoint her to take his place.

Maybe it wasn't a joke. Otana's expertise and passion just might qualify her for the post.

It all began with an experiment that Otana set up in her living room. Using her mother's breathing monitors and air purifiers, and her friends as research subjects, Otana tested breathing function before and after exposure to ozone emitted by some air purifiers. While they waited for the ozone to take effect, research subjects chowed down on ice cream sundaes, watched movies or made gingerbread houses.

"She said there was going to be ice cream," explained Leandra Solis, 18.

Otana presented her homemade experiment to the California Air Resources Board during a 2007 hearing on regulating ozone emitted by the devices. The board had already endured dozens of speeches from manufacturers who insisted there was no direct evidence that ozone from the purifiers endangered health.

When 13-year-old Otana stepped forward, the audience expected an "adolescent" presentation, Dimitri Stanich, a board spokesman, said. But within minutes, Otana, dressed in her signature black suit, had breezed through a PowerPoint presentation of the only data shown that day directly linking the machines to decreased lung function.

"I tested the effects of a two-hour exposure to an ozone-generating room air purifier on the pulmonary function of 24 test subjects and found it had no statistically significant effect on the whole study population," she began. "However, among the asthmatics, there was a drop of 11% in the FEV1 over FEC ratio. . . . Next slide . . ."

"It was quite a surprise," said Stanich. "She presented herself very confidently and quickly started going into the scientific rigors of her experiment. It was pretty quick into it that she made an impression."

After that meeting, California became the first state in the country to establish restrictions on ozone from household air purifiers.

Otana knows the suffering that asthma can cause a family. Her mother, Karen, an obstetrician, struggles with severe, chronic asthma. When she was pregnant with Otana's younger sister, Karen Jakpor had to move from the family's home in Riverside to Los Angeles, about an hour away, to be closer to the hospital. Her husband, Riase, an instructor at San Bernardino Valley College, stayed behind to work.

"I was just breathing," she said. "I was just trying to breathe."

Otana was her caretaker. The two spent the summer in an apartment listening to "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" on CD and eating macaroni and cheese while Karen gasped for air. Otana, then 10 years old, baked cookies and lemon bars to share with her mother.

"I think that's where a lot of her maturity comes from," her mother said. "She really grew up that summer."

That maturity has drawn attention from a host of admirers, including politicians, reporters and former teachers.

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