Fanning The Flames
Wild Fires can have a lasting effect on asthmatics.
While the pine beetle destroys forests on North America’s west coast and causes allergy sensitization, wildfires are another hazard in the trees wreaking havoc on people’s lungs around the world. As our planet experiences dramatic oscillations in weather patterns, with severe cycles of drenching and drought, there is a greater propensity for fires.
In recent years, intense blazes in California, Australia, Southeast Asia and the Amazon have had some scientists pointing the finger yet again at global warming.
“Instead of having our nice winter rain season, here in California and the Southwestern U.S., we’re tending to have drenching rain that brings mudslides and floods, followed by periods of pretty serious drought,” says Solomon. “When it gets dry toward the end of the summer, and there is no moisture left in the ground and all of the ground vegetation dies, it’s just tinder waiting to go up in flames.”
For people with asthma, smoke from fires can be a powerful trigger for symptoms. So it’s not surprising that where there’s uncontrolled burning, asthma soon follows. During the 2003 wildfire season in California, there was a 34 per cent increase in hospital admissions because of asthma attacks.
Solomon says the fires in 2009 were just as hazardous, even if you didn’t live particularly close to where they were raging. “I live and see patients in the San Francisco Bay area, and the fires were far to the north of us and inland. But nonetheless, our air quality suffered and asthmatics were actually quite sick for weeks at a time from the soot in the air,” she says.
Epstein sees the fires as “one of the most worrisome parts of the whole picture. It’s air quality, but also, our oxygen comes from the forest.”
Hurricane Katrina swamped homes in 2005.
But as some areas of the world experience extreme drought and intense wildfires, other areas are seeing heavy rains, flooding, and at times, deadly storms such as hurricanes. The water that is left from these weather systems creates a hotbed for mold growth, which thrives in moist environments. “Floods foster fungi’ is sort of a mantra in our field,” says Epstein.
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the city was overrun with mold. Nothing was spared in the houses that were flooded: the spores turned up on walls, furniture, rugs and linens. Solomon witnessed the phenomenon when she visited the city to perform an environmental assessment.
“The thing that was stunning in New Orleans after the flood was the amount of mold that was growing on every possible surface,” she says. It was no better outside: the outdoor air in flooded areas had average daily mold counts of over 50,000 spores per cubic meter, considered “very high” by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
In addition to mold, there was another hazard to contend with: bacteria-produced endotoxins, which have been linked to increased asthma risk, says Dr. Floyd Malveaux, executive director of the Merck Childhood Asthma Network in Washington. MCAN partially funded a unique asthma study in post-Katrina New Orleans called Head-off Environmental Asthma in Louisiana (HEAL). The HEAL study was designed because New Orleans presented singular circumstances to assess how being exposed to high amounts of mold and endotoxins would affect asthma symptoms, and the development of asthma in those who are susceptible.
So far the researchers have discovered about 70 per cent of children in New Orleans with asthma are sensitized to mold spores because of the significant exposure. “That’s much higher than we have seen in any other cities that we have studied,” says Malveaux, adding that in most inner-cities, mold sensitization is between 25 and 50 per cent.
Malveaux says another aspect of the HEAL project has already made a large impact: the creation of a program to help affected children manage their asthma after the flood. “The health-care system in New Orleans was severely disrupted. Many physicians left, the clinics were flooded, the records of children were destroyed, hospitals were flooded and pharmacists were not available because they were also flooded,” he says.
Kids in the HEAL study were given access to asthma counselors, assistance with accessing medical care, and aid in identifying and getting rid of moisture and mold. “There’s been a reduction in terms of asthma symptoms of those kids, more school attendance and there have been fewer emergency room visits because of that,” says Malveaux.
One of the objectives of the HEAL project is to take a horrific natural disaster, which has profound health effects, gain knowledge from it, and be better prepared next time. “We’re trying to learn lessons so that in the event. anything like this occurs again, we will be able to predict some of the things that will happen, especially for children who have asthma,” he says.
It’s this public health preparedness that Solomon says is a crucial aspect of managing allergies with respect to climate change. “It can seem rather grim,” she notes, “as any allergy sufferer does have a more uncomfortable future to look forward to. But it can be managed as long as the public health system and health-care providers and patients are all working together to make sure we’re ready with strategies to control allergies and symptoms.”
In the meantime, the prospect of a more allergic planet is another pressing reason to work on slowing the effects of climate change. “This human health issue is telling us that we’ve got to bring down carbon dioxide,” says Epstein. Whether it’s taking your bike or the bus to work, investing in a good old-fashioned push mower or reducing the setting on your air conditioner a few degrees, there are ways we can all help to lessen this allergic onslaught.
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- See Outdoor Allergies: Ragweed’s Rule – Investigating how this allergy weed became so potent and so wide spread.
- See Asthma: The Link to Smog – Traffic pollution’s effects on asthma.