Air Pollution & Asthma

Several years ago, when we were doing market research for some clients, we came across a statistic that said that something like thirty percent of children in a city, age ten or younger, had some form of respiratory disease, as the air quality was insufficient for their lungs to develop properly. It seems as though we haven’t addressed this problem sufficiently.  Here’s the data, then some suggestions.

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Air pollution causes up to 33 million ER visits for asthma annually

 New study is the first to look at the global

asthma burden’s connection to dirty air.


Kristina Marusic

Environmental Health News

Oct 25, 2018


PITTSBURGH—Air pollution is to blame for up to 33 million emergency room visits for asthma attacks around the world annually, according to a new study.

While previous research has looked at the connection between air pollution and a number of other diseases, the new study, led by researchers at George Washington University and published today in Environmental Health Perspectives, is the first to quantify the global burden of asthma caused by unhealthy air.

Asthma is the most prevalent chronic respiratory disease worldwide, affecting about 358 million people. In Pittsburgh, the region’s long-term problems with air pollution and asthma persist: Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is situated, scored all F’s on the American Lung Association’s 2018 air quality report card, and recent research suggests that an estimated 22 percent of children in the most polluted parts of the city have asthma—as compared with the national average of 8 percent.

Susan C. Anenberg, lead author of the study and an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, told EHN:


“A growing body of literature over the last several

decades links health and air pollution, but we

haven’t had a way to incorporate asthma before.


“This is important because these global disease

burden numbers are used to determine the alloca-

tion of public health resources around the world.”


Anenberg and her team first looked at emergency room visits for asthma in 54 countries and the territory of Hong Kong, then combined that information with an analysis of epidemiological studies from around the world and global pollution levels as detected by satellites orbiting the Earth (with support from NASA).

Show sharing optionsThe researchers found that between nine and 23 million annual asthma emergency room visits globally (or 8 to 20 percent of total global asthma ER visits) may be triggered by ozone pollution, which is generated when car, power plant and other types of emissions interact with sunlight. They also estimated that between five and 10 million asthma emergency room visits every year (or 4 to 9 percent of total global asthma ER visits) were linked to fine particulate matter—small particles of pollution that are inhaled and can become lodged in the airways, which are often associated with industrial emissions.

Anenberg’s findings reinforce those of a recent study from the Allegheny County Health Department in Pennsylvania that found emergency room visits for asthma declined by 38 percent the year after one of the Pittsburgh region’s largest industrial polluters was shut down.  Anenberg said:


“Both ozone and particulate matter are impor-

tant risk factors, and should be considered

targets to reduce the burden of asthma.

Just focusing on either particulate matter

or ozone alone may not be enough.


“The good news is that traffic is a major

source of both forms of pollution, so

just reducing traffic by improving

public transit and developing

infrastructure that encourages

people to walk or bike can

improve both at the same time.”


About half of the asthma emergency room visits attributed to dirty air in the study occurred in South and East Asian countries like India and China. Although the air in the United States is relatively clean compared to the air in those places, ozone pollution was estimated to cause 8 to 21 percent of annual ER visits for asthma, while particulate matter pollution was estimated to cause 3 to 11 percent of ER visits in the U.S. Anenberg said:


“We hope that this research will help public health

practitioners, doctors, and other people in the

health sector who are engaged in efforts to

reduce the burden of asthma in the general

population. Now that we have a clearer

picture of the overall burden, hopefully

we can begin to take more steps

toward reducing these risk factors.”

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A friend of mine who was born in Shanghai and has a condo there, so he can periodically visit family members, keeps inviting me to join him on one of his trips. I remember asking him how many days he was able to see the sky, on his last visit.  “None.”  So I asked him why I’d want to go back to a city with that level of air pollution.

The athletes who refused to attend the Olympic Games in Beijing brought the problem into an even greater focus … perhaps promoting change.

Those examples are of a global scale. The question, then, is:


What can you do, personally, to

address this kind of problem?


Essentially, you have two domains in which you can act on a personal level.


First, stop driving vehicles that use fossil fuels – especially SUVs and trucks, as they’re given a designation to (theoretically) aid farmers, and don’t have to comply as strictly with EPA air quality regulations. (California challenged the federal exemption, so all vehicles must pass the more stringent requirements there.)  But all car manufacturers are now increasing the variety of all-electric vehicles.  In fact, 50% of all new car sales in Europe are now electric.


Second, plant more trees … as many as you can plant on or near your homesite. Grass lawns just don’t do nearly as much to reduce air pollution.


If you haven’t yet downloaded my recent book, “The Challenge of Change,” – which is available from our web site at no cost whatever – there’s a lengthy, detailed, research-based chapter focused totally on things you can do to improve air quality … including air quality inside your home.

As the research data shows, the greater problem is in India and China. But Pittsburgh also has a serious problem, so it’s best not to pretend the problem is strictly “over there.”  Each of us can address it, and can enjoy better health … for very little expense.

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