EarthTalk: Is it true that asthma rates in
the U.S. have doubled in the last three decades? What’s
behind this troubling trend and what can we do to reverse
—Patrick, via e-mail
rates have doubled since the 1980s, in spite of
air quality in U.S. cities having increased over
the same time period.
is on the rise across the U.S., doubling since the 1980s.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), most
people who develop asthma likely have a genetic predisposition
but also probably experienced “critical environmental
exposures during the first years of life.” Asthma
rates are highest in urban areas where auto and industrial
emissions make for difficult breathing. But air quality
in U.S. cities has improved in the last few decades, leaving
researchers puzzled as to what’s behind the trend.
theory is that better hygiene in developed countries means
that Westerners have less exposure to bacteria, viruses
and parasites, altering our immune response with the result
being increased risk for allergic diseases like asthma.
Indeed, Western asthma rates are 50 times higher than in
rural Africa. While this “hygiene hypothesis”
may be part of the story, researchers believe that there
are also other factors.
studies have shown a correlation between asthma and obesity,
though a direct link is hard to prove. Other research has
shown that psychological stress can trigger asthma attacks
in those already predisposed. Dr. Harold Nelson, professor
of medicine at the National Jewish Health in Denver, explained
in a 2009 New York Times blog post that increased acetaminophen
(i.e. Tylenol) use in young children, exposure to household
cleaning sprays, and lack of Vitamin D also likely contribute
to rising asthma rates. But how?
recommend against giving young children aspirin today, given
the increased risk of Reye’s syndrome, so many parents
now use acetaminophen to relieve pain and reduce fever.
But acetaminophen lowers levels of the antioxidant glutathione,
resulting in an increased asthma risk. A 2008 study found
that use of acetaminophen in the first year of life was
associated with a 46 percent increase in the prevalence
of asthma symptoms among a study group of 200,000 six- and
regard to household cleaners, frequent inhaling of the spray
mist from glass cleaners and air fresheners among other
products irritates the lungs and increases the risk of developing
asthma. A 2007 study found that European adults who used
spray cleaners four days a week faced double the risk of
developing asthma symptoms, while weekly use of cleaners
increased the risk by 50 percent.
link between Vitamin D deficiency and asthma comes from
several studies on the topic over the last decade showing
that low levels of Vitamin D in pregnant mothers result
in more asthma in offspring. Those who spend lots of time
indoors are particularly vulnerable to Vitamin D deficiency,
as exposure to sunlight increases the body’s ability
to produce the important nutrient.
Nelson says that people can take steps to lower their exposure
to these “new” asthma risk factors. For one,
forego spray cleaners and air fresheners for liquids and
pump sprays that don’t produce a fine mist. Pregnant
women might consider Vitamin D supplements. And parents
should discuss pain relievers with their doctor and consider
alternating different types so kids don’t get overexposed
to any particular one.
Risks Linked to Asthma Rise” (New York Times, 2/12/09).
EarthTalk: Recycling can be a somewhat time-consuming
task; so can you please provide some benefits of taking
the time to separate my trash?
—Joseph Jiminez, Houston, TX
and re-use have many environmental benefits, including
reducing the amount of waste we bury in already
overcrowded landfills and burn in polluting incinerators,
like the one pictured here.
turns materials that would otherwise be incinerated or become
landfill-clogging waste into valuable resources, has become
second nature for many Americans. As many as four out of
five U.S. households already take the time to separate recyclables
from trash. Those hold-outs not yet willing to bother should
consider the benefits to their household and society at
First and foremost
for consumers is saving money. Many municipalities across
the U.S. today don’t charge customers for curb-side
pickup of recyclables but continue to charge for garbage
pick-up, so recycling is a way to reduce a household’s
overall waste expense. Otherwise, consumers who collect
large amounts of recyclables may be able to find a local
company willing to buy them in bulk. Some municipalities
operate drop-off centers where consumers can trade in aluminum
cans and other scrap metal (copper, steel, etc.) for cash.
Yet another way to recycle and make some cash is to sell
your old stuff in a yard sale. Likewise, shopping at yard
sales and second-hand stores will also prevent the manufacture
of new items altogether.
And there are
many benefits to recycling beyond each household’s
own bottom line. Recycling saves resources. By recycling
paper we save oxygen-providing, carbon-sequestering trees
from the axe. By recycling plastic, we save petroleum, contributing
(however slightly) to national security. By recycling metals,
we take a bite out of energy-intensive mining. And recycling
anything saves large amounts of energy and water that would
otherwise be expended in making new goods from virgin materials.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adds that
recycling “protects and expands U.S. manufacturing
jobs and increases U.S. competitiveness.”
Yet another benefit
of recycling is reducing the amount of waste we send to
overcrowded landfills and polluting incinerators. At the
other end of the consumer loop, buying products made out
of recycled rather than virgin materials is another way
to save money, as they are often less costly and just as
reducing our consumption of goods that are heavily packaged
(often with materials not recyclable themselves) is another
important part of any effort to spare bulging landfills
and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the re-use of materials
that would otherwise end up in landfills is yet another
way to conserve resources. It’s not difficult to think
of many ways that used boxes, packaging, paper and plastic
bags can be re-purposed to extend their usefulness and spare
the garbage (or recycling) man. Also, composting food scraps—either
at home or as part of a community effort—helps reduce
the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators.
With world population
still growing and developing countries now fully embracing
an American-style consumer culture, recycling and other
waste reduction techniques take on an increasingly important
role in efforts to protect the environment. Indeed, there’s
no time like the present to step up reducing, re-using,
recycling and composting. To find out where to recycle just
about anything near you, visit the Earth911 website, where
you can search by entering your zip code along with the
item you’re looking to unload.