January 15, 2008
The lucky kids can sleep through the night without gagging, or can run down the basketball court without worrying about a hospital visit. Breathing is never a conscious activity. But for the 6.5 million Americans under 18 with asthma, the most banal actions can set off a physical response that is uncomfortable at best and deadly at worst.
Asthma is now the most common chronic ailment among children in the United States; the number of young people afflicted has skyrocketed in recent years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of asthma in children rose 60 percent from 1980 to 2003, and low-income children of color are the most impacted. While small-scale reforms have helped teach kids the best ways to ease the manageable disease’s symptoms, structural fixes remain largely unaddressed, a disappointing trend given the severity of the epidemic in cities nationwide.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition in which a person’s bronchial tubes (airways) become swollen and extra mucus blocks air from reaching the lungs. For many, it will never be a concern, because one must have a genetic predisposition toward the malady for it to manifest. But if a person is genetically wired for asthma, a host of environmental conditions can trigger unpleasant–and in some situations dangerous–attacks.
Historically, the effects of allergens, or substances that cause allergic reactions, have garnered the most attention from researchers and clinicians. Indoor pollutants like mold, dust mites, animal dander, and secondhand tobacco smoke have all been identified as asthma enablers. Equally dangerous are outdoor aerial toxins, such as fuel exhaust from cars, trucks and buses, ragweed, and pollen. If an asthmatic child consistently breathes air of substandard quality, it’s likely their attacks will become more frequent.
Of course, given the deliberate placement of highways, industrial factories, airports, and other emitting infrastructure in American cities, poor youth are bombarded with a disproportionate amount of poisons. Frighteningly enough, as climate change warps the environment, these airborne toxins may strengthen, too. In a 2004 report, the American Public Health Association and researchers from Harvard University concluded that a “powerful one-two punch” of elevated pollen levels and modifications in the types of molds incited by climate change will boost the asthma rates of children in America’s cities.