There was a code orange day today in DC. Making the kids’ lunches that morning, I heard on the radio that “active children and adults, and people with lung disease, such as asthma, should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.”
That just about covers my whole family. My kids are definitely active. And, unfortunately, I have asthma. Last year I was prescribed my first ever rescue inhaler, and since then I’ve generally tried to ignore the fact that I have asthma, as my symptoms are mild. But I probably shouldn’t ignore it on poor air quality days.
I don’t know where my asthma came from. And as a new asthma sufferer, I don’t yet have the background and information about the disease that a long-time asthma patient would have. But I do know that when we burn fossil fuels, we are creating and distributing potent asthma triggers such as ozone and particulate matter.
It’s too bad that the connection between a coal-fired power plant, for example, and a rescue inhaler is invisible. I’d like to have some kind of alarm go off inside the executive board rooms of major utility companies whenever a child downwind of the plant has to use her rescue inhaler. Not to demonize the executives themselves – they are not alone in ignoring this link between asthma attacks and their product. There is a huge demand for cheap electricity. We, the consumers, provide that push. There is also the problem of the health costs of electricity consumption (from asthma, heart disease, stroke, and premature death, among other problems), which are paid by the consumers instead of the producers.
So it’s not just the utility company bigwigs, but all of us who need some system to alert us to the relationship between our energy use and our health.
Enter Asthmapolis, a company that has developed a GPS tracker for your rescue inhaler that sends your location to a database whenever the inhaler is used. It’s generating some interest as a novel way for healthcare providers to help patients effectively control the disease, and there is some evidence that it might be helpful for that purpose. I’m thinking eagerly of the other benefits we might be able to get from this kind of data, once the technology is widely used.
Epidemiological studies of the health effects of air pollution commonly look at emergency room visits as the outcome of interest. But there are large numbers of less severe asthma events that occur for every one emergency asthma hospital visit. It’s information about these very important but less-severe events to which Asthmapolis’s technology could give us access. Imagine overlaying data on power plant pollution with data on pollution from cars with real-time data on the use of every rescue inhaler prescribed to every child in a given city. That would be even better than a board room alarm system. It just might paint a picture too obvious to ignore about the effects fossil fuel combustion on our health.
In the meantime, you can find information about your local air quality here.
Photo Credit: AirNow.gov.