Published June 25, 2013
As the Obama administration moves to implement a national plan to combat climate change, some doctors say that these measures could help fight the steadily rising rates of asthma in the United States.
Detailed in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the initiative maintains that, “Asthma rates have doubled in the past 30 years, and our children will suffer more asthma attacks as air pollution gets worse.” And according to some experts, numerous studies do point to pollution as a contributing factor for rising asthma rates – and the increase is not just a result of better diagnostics.
“We know that the rates of asthma are certainly increasing over the past 20 years, and one of the possible reasons for that is due to air pollution,” Dr. Samuel Friedlander, a pulmonologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, told FoxNews.com. “(Based on) data, I don’t think it’s simply an overdiagnosis compared to in the past; there really, truly is an increase in asthma rates,” Friedlander told FoxNews.com.
Dr. Clifford Bassett, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of NY and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and NYU Langone Medical Center, acknowledged that the explanation behind rising asthma rates is complex and still somewhat of a mystery. He noted that asthma is very much affected by environmental issues, but other factors such as the over-sanitization of the environment in the first few years of a child’s life, as well as an increase in pollen levels in the United States, may also contribute to higher asthma rates.
The increase in pollen levels, however, may also be linked to environmental changes, Bassett noted.
“Climate change over the last couple decades has shown an impact on increasing CO2 production, which is a greenhouse gas,” Bassett told FoxNews.com. “(As a result), some plants may produce more pollen, according to USDA studies. We’re seeing an explosion of pollen that is supercharged and more powerful…and 80 percent of asthma is allergic driven.”
Additionally, climate change could potentially cause the growing season for some pollen-producing plants to last longer, which may also be contributing to the expansion of both allergies and asthma.
While it’s hard to know what exactly triggers an asthma attack, Friedlander said he suspects that pollution is just one of many contributing factors that cause asthma to become a problem.
“A lot of things exacerbate or cause it – smoking leads to it, certain infections, genetics,” Friedlander said. “What we strongly believe now is it is the interaction between genetics and environment – and the combination (of that) is what leads to asthma. It’s not one gene; it’s a whole lot of different series of events going on, and pollution seems to be one of them.”
According to Friedlander, when people have asthma, they experience airway hyper-responsiveness or twitchiness. Pollution – along with other factors like allergies – can set off a series of events that trigger these airway problems.
“(Researchers) have found that people that live closer to the highway or within several hundred yards had higher rates of asthma compared to those that lived farther inland,” Friedlander said.
Asthma, which causes symptoms like coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath, is typically treated through a combination of medications and avoidance measures when possible.
“Allergies are common in asthma as well, so if you’re allergic to a pet, which could be exacerbating your asthma, we talk about avoiding that,” Friedlander said.
While some triggers are easy to avoid, others, like pollution, can be much more difficult.
“What can you do? Move. Not live by the highway. Have a greener lifestyle. But overall, it’s going to take a more national response to reducing pollution,” Friedlander said.
Bassett added that because asthma is an airway disease, any methods to reduce pollution in the air could be helpful to asthma sufferers.
“As far as air pollution – green cars, green concepts – we’re looking for everything we can to reduce outdoor air pollution,” Bassett said.
Asthma sufferers should also make sure their disease is properly controlled under the supervision of a doctor, Bassett noted.
“Air pollution can provide a reason to worry,” Bassett said. “But if you’re properly controlled you’ll do much, much better when exposed to these air pollutants.”