Researchers are trying to find out what’s causing increasing numbers of asthma cases among children in urban areas. The latest study is one of the largest of its kind ever undertaken. Those involved believe they might find evidence that pollutants from distant sources play a bigger role in asthma attacks than had been previously thought. In the final segment of a three-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports that if those links are confirmed, only stricter government regulations can reduce the number of cases of asthma:
Researchers are trying to find out what’s causing increasing numbers of
asthma cases among children in urban areas. The latest study is one of the
largest of its kind ever undertaken. Those involved believe they might find
evidence that pollutants from distant sources play a bigger role in asthma
attacks than had been previously thought. In the final segment of a
three-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports
that if those links are confirmed, only stricter government regulations can
reduce the number of cases of asthma.
The study is being funded by a couple of government agencies.
As part of their work, researchers are giving families tools they can use to help reduce the occurrence of asthma
attacks. But they’re also trying to learn
more about what causes those attacks in the first place. So, they’re monitoring air quality in the homes and neighborhoods where children with asthma live and play. And depending on what the researchers find, these tests, they say, could prove to be a turning point in the debate over emissions and public health.
Previous studies have found that some types of pollution can travel very long distances. For example, scientists have
tracked soot and ozone from power plant smokestacks for hundreds of miles. University of Michigan researcher Tim
Dvonch says this new study will now try to determine whether those pollutants can affect the health of children downwind. Dvonch is setting up air quality monitoring in Detroit. He says part of that research will be looking for different sizes of soot, or what the researchers call particulate matter. That’s because earlier studies have linked smaller particulate matter to respiratory illnesses.
“And that’s actually helping to dictate which sized fractions — why we’re looking at different sized fractions of particulate matter in the air. We’re also looking at ozone. Ozone in the past has been linked to health effects in various high risk groups.”
Advocates are hoping the results of this study will give them more evidence to use in a push for government regulations.
Previous studies have already proven to be useful. Data from them have been used to lobby Congress for more restrictions on emissions.
One of those studies was commissioned this year by the Clean Air Task Force. It found that soot from power plants led to
about 603,000 asthma attacks in one year and more than 7,000 emergency room visits. Andy Igrejas is with the National Environmental Trust, one of the task force members. He says while soot is a major health problem, it’s not even the worst one they’re studying.
“Ozone has an even more profound affect on asthma attacks. A study by the same consulting firm found that the ozone for power plants was responsible for approximately 6.2 million asthma attacks and 16,000 asthma related emergency room visits as well as some other
respiratory symptoms. So, ozone is another major problem that power plants
Igrejas says those studies can become powerful tools in an effort to strengthen government regulation of air pollution.
“There’s a lot of consensus on the need to clean up power plants and beginnings of a very, uh finer points of policy debate here and we want to add this piece of research to illuminate the trade-offs involved, that
you really can quantify with reasonable accuracy how many people are — how
many lives are going to be cut short, how many asthma attacks you can save
by cleaning up power plant pollution by particular levels.”
Igrejas says when you start balancing lives and public health with profit margins and economics, the dynamics of the debate
change. Other advocacy groups see the value of the data from the various studies and how it can be used to reduce pollution.
Douglas Klegon is the CEO of the American Lung Association of Michigan.
“We’ve been very supportive of the EPA efforts on air pollution. There’s clear evidence that particulate matters do make a difference. And so we’re looking forward to more stringent regulations that will clean up our air and improve people’s health.”
So, if the Detroit study confirms direct links between soot and ozone pollution and asthma attacks, advocacy groups could use the results to argue for further restrictions on power plants and other sources of the pollutants. And the
EPA and the environmental groups that lobby Congress might finally have the direct evidence they need to tighten regulations in spite of the economic costs to the smokestack industries and consumers.
However, Tim Dvonch and his colleagues say right now they’re more worried about helping the children they’ve come to
know as they conduct the study. Right now they’re concentrating on helping those families manage the disease.
“It really is a first step. But we’re very hopeful and feel pretty confident with the research team that we have assembled and the study that we’ve laid out for this five years that, yes, we can get through that first
line of questions. What are the triggers? And through our intervention at
least begin to assess what are effective ways to help children and families
deal with asthma.”
But depending on the results, the Detroit findings along with seven other similar studies in cities across the nation could have an effect far beyond the neighborhoods being studied.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.