Asthma is only one of many health problems related to air pollution. But it’s a big one. According to statistics compiled by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, approximately 34 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma; 9 million of those are children under 18.
Asthma is responsible for 13 million missed school days per year, and it is the third ranking cause of hospitalization for children under age 15.
Asthma is not exactly easy on the American economy, either. Total asthma-related expenses are about $6.6 billion per year; of this, a group of researchers (including Mount Sinai’s Philip Landrigan, who I recently interviewed) has estimated that $2 billion of that can be attributed to environmental pollution. That’s $2 billion that isn’t related to genes, pet dander, household mold, secondhand smoke, roach droppings, infections, or the weather. In other words, asthma costs our nation $2 billion per year from exactly the sources regulated by the EPA: factories, power plants, and cars.
A Mom’s Story
Cara Meade, a public school teacher in Connecticut, has a fine-grained understanding of what those $2 billion actually mean for her family. A severe asthmatic herself (she was diagnosed at age 16), Cara’s 10 year old daughter, Cailey, got a diagnosis of moderate asthma last year. Cara thinks her health insurance is “very good” – she doesn’t need a referral to visit a pulmonologist – but she notes that her sick visit co-pay is $25. This can add up with Cailey.
“We go to the doctor a lot with her,” Cara says. Last year, Cailey had strep throat four times, croup twice, and missed about 10 days of school. “She was so sick last year that I couldn’t get her a flu shot.”
People with asthma are at high risk from complications of the influenza virus, and it’s a priority for Cara to give her daughter some protection from the flu. But sick people can’t get the shot.
Cara thinks the asthma relates to Cailey’s other illnesses. “It all connects,” she says. “We know that asthmatics don’t have good immunity. They don’t have the strength to fight things off. If a germ flies by [Cailey], she gets it.”
The Cost of Asthma
So exactly how much does this cost her in medical care? Cara thinks she spent $600 in out of pocket expenses last year. And this cost does not include the prescription medications for Cailey, which add up to $50 per month, or another $600 per year.
When Cailey’s asthma is under control, those costs will be less. Cara says that she is hoping to take Cailey to the pulmonologist only twice this year, as opposed to the six times they had to visit that doctor last year, when they were still trying to get a handle on Cailey’s asthma. And Cara is working hard to make sure the asthma doesn’t flare up. After learning that Cailey was allergic to wheat, Cara changed what Cailey eats, adding hundreds of dollars per month in gluten-free groceries to the family’s budget. Gluten was irritating Cailey’s asthma, and getting her off wheat improved her blood oxygen levels almost immediately.
Air Pollution Makes Asthma Worse
There are some things beyond Cara’s control that can cause flare-ups…
“Air quality impacts [Cailey’s] ability to function,” Cara says. “We definitely pay attention to ozone alerts.” Cara knows this from personal experience. She tries to stay inside on high ozone days, due to her own asthma. On those days, she says, “my lungs are sore. They hurt like a bruise, as opposed to just tightness.”
Air pollution can aggravate Cara’s and Cailey’s asthma, sending them to the doctor more. These are real cash costs for Cara’s family. Talk about job-killing.
Industrial air pollution causes and aggravates asthma. The benefits of our industrialization take on a distinct pallor in this light. If we know about a preventable cause of asthma, shouldn’t we do our best to eliminate it? Good old American ingenuity has got to be able to devise a nice work-around. Clean energy, anyone?