Bad Air

May is Asthma Awareness Month, the subject of advisories and community initiatives led by agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health. Mostly, these agencies are invested in helping people to learn to identify and control asthma triggers and manage their symptoms to avoid emergency room visits and life-threatening complications. Asthma has increasingly become a major health problem and studies show that climate change is going to make it worse.

About one in 13 people in the U.S. suffer from asthma according to the CDC, and asthma costs the U.S. $56 billion a year in medical costs, lost school and work days and early deaths. The number of people with asthma is on the rise, in particular black children whose asthma rates rose 50% between 2001 and 2009. One in six black children had asthma in 2009. Rising temperatures are contributing to the triggers that aggravate asthma attacks, including in urban areas where nitrogen oxide and sunlight combine to form ground-level ozone, a leading cause of “bad air” days.

Warmer weather is also giving rise to droughts and wildfires which impact asthma via high amounts of airborne dust, smoke and particulate matter. Then there’s the issue of pollen. About 26% of the population is sensitive to ragweed pollen. Global warming is expanding ragweed growing seasons and is leading ragweed to produce more pollen. “The inflammation is cumulative—the longer the pollen season goes on the more symptomatic a person can get,” says John Balbus, senior advisor for public health with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences who leads agency efforts on climate change and human health.

In this issue’s feature, I take a look at asthma’s rising numbers and the direct contributions of climate change. There are other concerning environmental triggers, too, including pollution from highways and smokestacks. And indoor environments are often even worse. The EPA reports that the average American spends 90% of his or her time indoors and that levels of pollutants are typically two to five times higher inside homes compared to outside. In a sidebar, I detail a number of ways to control indoor allergy and asthma triggers, from investing in a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, to covering mattresses and reducing household humidity

On a larger scale, tackling climate change is the only way to prevent a whole range of health impacts to come, including increased asthma rates. Climate change will contribute to water and food shortages, new infectious diseases, massive die-offs of marine animals and a host of consequences that will directly impact human health. Just as even the healthiest athletes need to stay indoors when faced with poor air quality, it is impossible for people to remain healthy without a healthy environment.