Monday, February 18, 2013

Bay Area Air Sickening and Killing Kids

Richmond, CA (image from Flickr, by bionicteaching)
The wonderfully clear and sunny days the San Francisco Bay Area experienced during January and early February were also “spare the air” days because of the high levels of smog—also typical of Bay Area winters (at least lately). This is because the Bay Area is home to several oil refineries in Richmond and West Contra Costa County, as well as numerous other polluting chemical and industrial facilities along the waterfront throughout the area.

There were 11,000 hospital admissions in 2010 for asthma-related disease in California (according to a recent report by Inside Bay Area), but in Alameda Country (which includes Oakland and Berkeley) the rate was nearly twice the state average (20.3 hospitalizations for every 10,000 children)—higher than any other country except Fresno and Imperial Counties, which suffer from severe agricultural pollution. Particularly hard hit have been Oakland, Emeryville (Alameda Country), and Richmond and Pittsburg (Contra Costa County).

Severe asthma is potentially deadly (though this is rare). However, even for the majority of children who do not die from their attacks, there can be long-term or permanent health effects if not treated and controlled, as well as long-term social consequences, as the illness can cause them to fall behind at school due to their absences.

While there is ample evidence that indoor (e.g., tobacco smoke) and outdoor air pollution exacerbate asthma, what is less well understood is why asthma has been on the rise, now affecting nearly 10% of all U.S. children. Particularly hard hit have been African American children, who have seen a 39% increase in their rate of asthma. One hypothesis is that poverty in a contributing factor, since poor people are more likely to live in areas with high levels of air pollution and in substandard housing that is prone to mold—both of which are known to aggravate asthma.

80-90% of the childhood hospitalizations for asthma can be prevented with proper therapy and intervention, according to Dr. Ted Chaconas, who was quoted in the Inside Bay Area article. However, this often does not happen in poor communities, where children may lack health insurance or easy access to medical care, while also being exposed to higher levels of environmental pollutants.

Considering that many of the pollutants that contribute to asthma come from sources that are also spewing high levels of carbon into the atmosphere, the most rational approach to reducing the incidence and severity of asthma is to reduce or abolish as many of these factories as possible. This would not only reduce the number of missed school days, hospitalizations and costs of treatment, but it would help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and, hopefully, help reverse global warming, which is already responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide due to extreme weather, crop failure, flooding and infiltration of fresh water supplies and the increased spread of infectious disease. Furthermore, particulate air pollution itself is deadly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution is responsible for 1 million preventable deaths each year.

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