Commentary: Hype Hazes Message During Asthma Awareness Month

By Benita M. Dodd

There’s not a single good reason for Asthma Awareness Month. There are, in fact, more than 20.3 million good reasons, all of them Americans who report currently suffering form asthma. And among them are 6.3 million children.

Marking World Asthma Day on May 6, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson acknowledged asthma as “one of the most common chronic health conditions in the United States.” He announced federal grants would fund innovative community-based disease prevention and control programs.

The Environmental Protection Agency marked the day differently, announcing a partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to develop an air-quality forecasting tool.

“The 31 million Americans with asthma, including 9 million children, will breathe easier with more accurate forecasts of high ozone days,” said EPA Administrator Christie Whitman (whose numbers raise the stakes even higher).

The EPA action linking ozone and World Asthma Day does millions of asthmatic children a disservice, but the agency wasn’t alone. John Kirkwood, president of the American Lung Association, announced on World Asthma Day that “Pollution is a major trigger of asthma.”

“In the recent American Lung Association State of the Air 2003 report we reported that over 7.4 million adults with asthma and 2 million children who suffer from asthma attacks live in counties with unhealthy amounts of ozone,” Kirkwood added.

Ozone has proven to be a profitable pollutant for the ALA, whose symbiotic relationship with the EPA has expanded the federal agency’s powers while reaping the association millions of dollars through litigation and grant applications. The ALA has been awarded more than $5 million in EPA grants in the past four years alone; the U.S. Treasury Judgment Fund Branch rejected a request for the names of EPA judgment recipients, citing individuals’ privacy rights.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that “Many factors can trigger an asthma attack, including allergens, infections, exercise, abrupt changes in the weather, or exposure to airway irritants, such as tobacco smoke.”

The ALA is undeterred, its fixation on ozone and asthma reflected in its Web site. A search shows “ozone” appears with “asthma” in 3,022 articles on the site, as do “smog” and “asthma.” “Asthma” appears with “cigarette” 322 times; with “allergens” 98 times; with “dander” 76 times; and with “house dust mite” 22 times.

Meanwhile, serious researchers investigate why, despite enormous air quality improvements since 1970, asthma rates have soared 75 percent. The EPA reports that “Since 1970 aggregate emissions of the six principal pollutants tracked nationally have been cut 25 percent.” That has been achieved while “the U.S. Gross Domestic Product increased 161 percent, energy consumption increased 42 percent, and vehicle miles traveled increased 149 percent,” the EPA says.

In Georgia, where the rate of self-reported asthma is 11 percent, the Environmental Protection Division reports that metropolitan Atlanta has attained federal air quality standards for all pollutants except ozone. Muggy summers set metro Atlanta up for defeat: “To achieve attainment status, the average number of days above the standard must be equal to or less than one for three consecutive years,” the EPD says.

Last week, Georgia Power announced that new environmental controls at its coal-fired plants will reduce ozone-causing nitrogen oxide emissions annually to 50 percent less than 1990 levels, even as electricity generation has increased 20 percent. Its parent company, Southern, has reduced emissions 41 percent while increasing generation more than 20 percent.

Litigious activists clearly aren’t ready to dismiss the deep pockets: “When your kid has an asthma attack, he doesn’t care about how much better things have gotten,” was the response of Robert Ukeiley of the Georgia Center for Law in the Public Interest. “It’s still not safe to breathe.”

Kirkwood echoes Ukeiley, saying, “We can’t depend on Mother Nature to protect Americans from disease and death caused by breathing human-made smog.”

Evidence points to the “disease and death” emanating far closer to home; in fact, in our very homes. Researchers believe that Americans’ obsession with health and hygiene is making our children more susceptible to asthma. The body usually increases resistance to allergies by doing battle with childhood infections. But with children protected from germs, their immunity is limited.

Americans spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors – and studies show that indoor pollution levels can sometimes exceed 100 times that of outdoor air. Carpet, drapes, sofas, beds and blankets all collect dust, dirt, pet dander, house dust mites and cockroach droppings; sealed homes trap chemical, cooking and cigarette fumes that aggravate asthma. In Harlem, where one child in four has asthma, researchers found that asthmatic children are about 50 percent more likely to live with a smoker. Harlem’s campaign to reduce asthma rates includes doctors, nurses and social workers focusing on cleaning up and repairing apartments.

The nation’s obesity epidemic may be partially to blame for the self-reported asthma rate: Tuft University researchers, in a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, report that asthma appears to be over-diagnosed in obese people. “Since overweight people are likely to experience exercise limitations, dyspnea may explain the increased prevalence of an asthma diagnosis and bronchodilator use despite the absence of evidence of airflow obstruction,” the researchers said.

Americans will continue to get a garbled message about asthma until the alarmists are deprived of their fund-raising media hype. The only way to raise awareness about asthma and to save lives is to remove the association with ozone and focus, as Secretary Thompson would, on community action. That won’t happen until there’s a distinct separation of Asthma Awareness Month from the May-September ozone season.

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 8, 2003). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

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