A Mother’s Missive: Asthmatic Children, Bad Air Days and Carbon Pollution

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | May 19, 2014 | Climate Change, Coal, Energy Policy

May is synonymous with Mother’s Day, but it’s also Asthma Awareness Month. So in honor of the 25.5 million Americans with asthma, I decided to share my personal ‘coping with asthma’ story. You see, my daughter is one of 7 million children in the United States who lives with asthma, a chronic respiratory disease that can leave her wheezing, breathless and coughing with little notice.

While the list of ‘triggers‘ that can bring on an asthma attack is well known, it’s also overwhelming: household pets, dust mites, allergens, exercise, mold, tobacco smoke, infections, VOCs and outdoor air pollution (from factories, automobiles and power plants). Where to begin? In our case, we washed her stuffed animals and bedding in hot water weekly for years to keep the dust mites at bay; attempted to keep pets out of bedrooms; kept her away from smoke of all kinds (cigarettes, open fires – even sparklers and fireworks on the 4th of July); and used only air-friendly paints and cleaning products in our house.

The two biggest factors that were partially beyond our ability control were infections (which weakened her immune system) and outdoor air pollution (such as diesel exhaust and particulate matter from power plants). I say “partially beyond our control” because while asthma affects people of all ages, races and socio-economic classes, it disproportionately affects minorities as well as children and families with lower incomes due, in part, to closer proximity to asthma-triggering pollutants from coal-fired power plants, highways, construction sites, and other sources of dirty emissions. Fortunately we did not live in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant, but we did live on a busy four-lane road with plenty of traffic and we did frequently bike/walk/wait at bus stops along busy streets since my family owned only one car at that time.

Despite our many efforts to minimize triggers, our daughter still suffered moderate (to the occasional severe) asthma attacks in her toddler to preschooler years, which led to doctor’s office and urgent care visits on par with the national average: asthma is the third leading cause of hospitalization among children under the age of 15. The visits and treatments that resulted brought both financial and emotional impacts for our family. Direct health care costs for asthma averages approximately $50 billion annually and we’ve paid our fair share in doctors’ fees, medications and other supplies over the years.

Yet the financial impacts were sometimes easier to handle than the emotional ones. Imagine a young child struggling to breathe and confused that she could not draw a full breath.  Now picture that child struggling to turn away as strangers tried to cover her face with a mask (albeit one to aid her breathing). In an attempt to soften the harsh, clinical nature of asthma treatments, nurses would connect my daughter to nebulizers sporting a fish-faced mask and her ‘rescue inhaler’ was decked out with a duck-faced mask (pictured above). These silicone parts were designed to make the process less scary for a child, but did little to help the parents. My husband and I both spent more than a few nights in a steamy, warm bathroom with our child to keep her upright and to help her to breathe easier.

A tough night in our household could proceed a missed school day as asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism. In 2008, asthma accounted for an estimated 14.4 million lost school days in children — and our daughter accounted for a few of those days. When children miss school due to an asthma attack, learning isn’t the only loss because these absences are responsible for another $5.9 billion in indirect costs due to lost productivity when parents have to stay home with sick children.

Thankfully our daughter’s asthma symptoms have lessened over the years and her asthma appears to be in remission; however, this may not always be the case. Scientists and public health experts are warning that climate pollution may aggravate conditions like asthma because rising temperatures will make smog pollution worse and increase the number of “bad air days” when it’s hard to breathe.

As the mother of an asthmatic child, that’s not a scenario I will accept when there are solutions. I am pleased that the Environmental Protection Agency is poised to release new regulations to reduce the health impacts from unseen pollutants when it proposes the first-ever national standards to limit carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants next month. Coal plants are the single largest emitter of CO2 pollution in the United States, dumping more than two billion tons of CO2 into the air every year. Reducing emissions from these behemoths will not only protect public health by reducing pollutants that aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases, but will significantly help mitigate other impacts of climate change as well. I’ll be submitting supportive comments to the EPA for these new standards on behalf of my child and the millions like her who live with asthma.  I hope you’ll join me and send in your comments, as well.

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