As the mother of two children with asthma — one of whom was recently hospitalized during a severe asthma attack — I know how serious and debilitating a condition asthma can be. Although I had mild asthma as a child, my kids have more serious cases, and I have often wondered the reason for this. My husband and I don’t smoke; we maintain a healthy diet. What could have caused this?
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, it’s not just my kids: Asthma rates have been steadily increasing since the 1980s. 1 in 12 kids have the condition, it’s the leading chronic disease in kids and it’s the top reason given for school absences. Fortunately most cases of asthma can be managed with medication.
Nonetheless, asthma kills several thousand people per year, including kids. For example, according to the CDC, in 2007 185 kids and 3,262 adults died of asthma.
Not all experts agree on the reasons behind this spike in asthma cases. Some argue that it has to do with the “hygiene hypothesis” — that kids these days are not exposed to enough dirt and aren’t populated with enough “good bacteria” to boost their immune systems and help them fight off disease. Others blame overuse of antibiotics, the rise in obesity among children and vitamin D deficiency.
While all of these may be potential causes, what many overlook is the role pollution plays in the development and increased rates of asthma. Experts have long believed there is a link; according to the EPA, the six million children diagnosed with asthma in America are especially vulnerable to the effects of pollution.
I never really considered this aspect until recently. Of course, it makes sense that if our air is full of pollutants, our breathing would be compromised. But none of my kids’ doctors mentioned this factor, and it wasn’t discussed in mainstream media very often.
The research also showed how decreasing pollution can reduce asthma rates.
That trend might be changing, thanks in part to a new worldwide focus on climate change and a push toward eco-friendly practices. A 2019 landmark study, published in the journal of the American Medical Association, is highlighting just how deep an impact pollution plays in the development of asthma. The research also showed how decreasing pollution can reduce asthma rates.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California (USC), looked at the area of Southern California specifically, long known for its high rates of smog and pollution. What the researchers were zeroing in on was what happened to asthma sufferers over the past 20 years, as Southern California took measures to reduce its pollution rates.
The results were quite striking. Over the 20 years the researchers studied, pollution in Southern California decreased by 20%. At the same time, asthma rates also decreased by 20%. According to NPR, the study wasn’t able to prove cause and effect here, but these results are pretty remarkable and certainly something researchers and climate change advocates should keep a close eye on.
“There’s been a concerted effort in California over the period of this study to reduce motor vehicle emissions in general and diesel emissions in particular,” John Balmes, environmental health professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told NPR. “And I think this study shows that it’s paying off.”
Asthma rates didn’t decline in every area the researchers studied.
“Some communities declined a little bit,” explained Erika Garcia, a researcher from USC. “Some communities declined a lot. Some communities didn’t decline at all.” However, in areas where pollution decreased the most — where the levels of nitrogen dioxide specifically had dropped — researchers found a marked decline in asthma rates.
So what do these results mean for asthma sufferers, environmental scientists and advocates? Experts agree that this study points to the need for more parts of the country to make concerted efforts, as Southern California did, to reduce air pollutants. Southern California put restrictions on fuel emissions from vehicles, and the reduction in nitrogen dioxide that the USC researchers noted was a direct effect of that regulation.
As we all know, making significant changes like this requires policy shifts on the state and federal level. But a study like this shows that it can be done, and doing so can have strongly positive effects on the health and well being of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
There are so many reasons to advocate and fight for more sustainable, eco-friendly practices. As a mother, I can tell you that watching your child struggle to breathe is one of the most terrifying experiences in the world.
I hope more attention is paid to this issue. Clean air seems like one of the most basic tenants of life, and enacting policies and practices to clean it up and protect it should be a top priority.
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