ALAMEDA, Calif.—The first time Devine Simpson had an asthma attack, she said she couldn't stop coughing. It was so bad, it woke her up in the middle of the night.
"I felt like I was going to throw up," she said.
Devine was diagnosed at age 3, and for many years, her asthma seemed out of control, said her mother, Tracie Simpson.
About two years ago, Simpson began bringing Devine, who is now in fifth grade, to the Breathmobile, a mobile 33-foot recreational vehicle that is outfitted as an asthma clinic. Operated by West Oakland, Calif., nonprofit the Prescott-Joseph Center with a recent influx of funding from Chevron Corp., the clinic is parked in front of a smattering of Alameda and Contra Costa elementary schools on most days.
Devine is one of 25 million people in the United States diagnosed with asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Asthma is an inflammatory condition or disease of the airways that affects the bronchial tubes in the lungs. When the bronchioles are inflamed, it causes the tubes to swell, constrict and produce excess mucus. These actions prevent air from making it through, which creates the symptoms of asthma—coughing, wheezing and sometimes a feeling patients describe as not being able to breathe. Without treatment, it can be a life-threatening disease.
In recent decades, diagnoses of asthma have risen dramatically. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of patients diagnosed with asthma rose by 4.3 million, according to CDC reports. It is a leading cause of school absences across the country.
Symptoms are often triggered by air pollution and allergies. Climate change may also exacerbate the problem.
"Plants are starting their pollination season earlier, and it lasts longer," said Alan Goldsobel, an allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Associates of Northern California.
Climate change affects the duration of seasons and contributes to more erratic weather patterns, and those changes are causing plants to not only release pollen earlier and longer, but more of it.
A bus that presents a remedy, not a cause
Since spending time on the Breathmobile—or "asthma bus," as Simpson calls it—Devine hasn't missed any school because of her asthma or made any emergency trips to the hospital, giving Simpson peace of mind, but also empowering her daughter. The staff on board can refer patients to a county program called Healthy Homes, which will come in and help with bedding and extermination.
Dr. Geetika Sengupta, who has been with the Breathmobile for more than two years, said asthma can be caused by different stressors in different patients. For some people, allergies trigger their symptoms, whereas for others, it can be exercise or getting a cold.
Intensified air pollution from vehicles could also be behind the increasing number of cases in the country. Measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles—which account for 27 percent of emissions across the country—are also effective for reducing levels of particulate matter, which can aggravate asthma.
A federal mandate to reduce emissions from vehicles purchased after 2006 could result in 14 million fewer school absences from respiratory problems—especially among kids with asthma—annually, according to a new study from the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.
In 2005, U.S. EPA's National Clean Diesel Campaign required that vehicles purchased after 2006 use cleaner fuels and be subject to more stringent emissions standards. At the same time, EPA offered grants to upgrade and replace old diesel engines. Through these grants, 20,000 school buses were upgraded or replaced between 2005 and 2009.
Researchers found that these upgrades may have a significant impact on the health of the 25 million children who ride school buses every day—reducing levels of pollutants in buses by as much as 50 percent.
'Huge' health benefits from climate change measures
Their research, which focused on 275 elementary school children in Washington state, measured air quality in buses before and after EPA standards were implemented. Among children who didn't have asthma, inflammation markers in their lungs dropped by 16 percent while inflammation markers in children with asthma dropped 20 to 31 percent, depending on the severity of their condition.
"It's a success story," said Joel Kaufman, co-author of the study. "Investing in these technologies is beneficial."
Though the study focused on air quality in buses, the researchers say the effects of reduced emissions from buses and other vehicles could have cascading effects on surrounding communities and children such as Devine.
"The changes we make to avert climate change not only have benefits for climate change, but they also have huge benefits on health," Kaufman said.
Kaufman's statement echoes the ideas behind President Obama's initiative to highlight connections between climate change and health announced earlier this month. The president even brought his own daughter Malia's childhood battle with asthma to illustrate how combating global warming can directly affect those who have the respiratory disease.
"We've got to do better in protecting vulnerable Americans," Obama said. "Ultimately, though, all of our families are going to be vulnerable. You can't cordon yourself off from air or from climate."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500