Asthmatic Kids at Risk in San Joaquin Valley

This post originally appeared in KQED’s NewsFix on November 1, 2011.

Water polo tournament at Fresno's Sunnyside High goes on, despite air quality so poor that school districts are supposed to cancel outdoor activities. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

Water polo tournament at Fresno's Sunnyside High goes on, despite air quality so poor that school districts are supposed to cancel outdoor activities. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

Today, KQED’s Sasha Khokha outlines how the lack of effective air monitoring policy in the San Joaquin Valley could be harming the people who live there. As she reports, a recent study from UCSF Fresno and CSU Fresno [PDF] finds a direct link between air pollution and asthma-related ER visits. The study found what researchers call a “linear association” between certain components of air pollution and asthma ER visits. In other words, as air pollution goes up, the likelihood of an asthmatic child heading to the ER goes up, too.

The San Joaquin Valley has some of the dirtiest air in the country and high rates of childhood asthma.

As air pollution goes up, the likelihood of an asthmatic child heading to the ER goes up, too.
 The culprits are two components of air pollution: ground-level ozone and particulate matter. Ground-level ozone can have corrosive effects on the lungs, decreasing lung function. Particulate matter are tiny particles, like soot.  The simple act of breathing carries these particles deep into the lungs where they stick and can cause breathing and heart problems.

Adults are at risk as well. But for them, the risk is heart attack. More particulate matter in the air means more people are going to have heart attacks on that day.

Air quality activists say that local regulators are not doing a good job alerting the public when the air quality is dangerous. Pollution alerts come from newspapers, local TV and even school districts, which post flags depending on ranging from green, for healthy air to purple, very unhealthy. But, Khokha reports, “All these sources are predictions of averages for air quality on a given day.  They don’t take into account the way conditions change throughout the day.”

And conditions can vary drastically.  This chart shows the air quality variation on a single day. The bottom axis is time of day, starting with “0″ or midnight.

Chart detailing variation in air pollution levels for September 29, 2011. (Credit: San Joaquin Valley Air District)

Chart detailing variation in air pollution levels for September 29, 2011. (Credit: San Joaquin Valley Air District)

From midnight-noon, air quality is in the healthy “green” zone. If an air quality prediction is made at this time, for the entire day, it will soon be wrong.  By noon, air quality was deteriorating. By 2pm, a time when many children are getting out of school, the air quality had declined to “unhealthy for all.”  By 4pm, a time when many children are participating in after school sports and more likely to be outdoors, the air quality was bumping into the “very unhealthy” zone.

So what to do? The easiest recommendation is for asthmatic children to stay indoors. But staying indoors means children are more sedentary. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of obesity, an even bigger public health menace than asthma.

Instead, Tim Tyner, co-author of the study, has solid recommendations for asthmatic children and outdoor play. First, children with asthma are usually prescribed two kinds of medication: controller and rescue. Controller medications should be taken daily, to manage their asthma and prevent symptoms from occurring.  Rescue medications are used when symptoms occur, to “rescue” someone from an asthma episode.

Of course, parents need to make sure children use their controller medication properly. But in addition, Tyner says, “Children with asthma should always pre-medicate with their rescue inhaler medication prior to participating in any vigorous physical activity.” And it’s not just on bad air quality days. “It really applies to all situations involving strenuous activity, including good air days or indoor activities.”

Still, on the worst air quality days, all children should stay indoors or, if they must be outdoors, limit the duration and intensity of their outdoor activities, Tyner says.

Team California for Healthy Kids, part of the California Department of Education, encourages schools to adopt programs that increase physical activity throughout the school day.  The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District also has resources on their website to help teachers implement classroom physical activity.

But, now we’re back to Khokha’s report. If no one is alerting the public that air quality is dangerously bad, how does anyone–parents, teachers, coaches–know that recess or soccer practice or just walking home from school could net a child a trip to the emergency room?

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