Easy for you and me to say. But for 7.1 million U.S. school children it’s not. Childhood asthma rates continue to rise and from 2001 through 2009 those rates were the highest for African American children, almost a 50 percent increase. Asthma accounts for 10.5 million school absences each year. The main trigger of asthma in school children are the same contributors to poor indoor air quality. Yeah, that’s right … open a window.
Air is mostly composed of nitrogen (78 percent) and oxygen (20 percent), air also has about 1 percent of water vapor and tiny amounts of argon and other gases. For most of us, air quietly passes through our nasal passages into our lungs and out again; taking in the oxygen needed for our blood supply during inhalation and disposing the carbon dioxide by-product during exhalation. We do this without thought, without effort–unless you are a child with asthma.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease characterized by inflammation of the airways. Recurring symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing. Asthma develops in childhood as early as 6 months of age and lasts a lifetime. About one in 12 Americans are living with asthma and over one third of them are children. In adults women are more likely than men to have asthma and more boys than girls among children. Those with asthma pay a huge price, about $3,000 per year per person to be exact. This figure includes medical care, medications, lost work/school days and deaths.
Various triggers not easily controlled can cause an asthma attack such as changes in weather. However, there are other triggers that can be controlled such as the presence of dust mites, roaches, pets, and mold affecting indoor air quality. Asthma is particularly more prevalent to those living in poor neighborhoods. A recent episode of NBC Dateline revealed that the childhood asthma rates in East Harlem run at 19 percent compared to the adjoining Upper East Side neighborhood at 7 percent. They breathe the same New York City air, so what accounts for the difference?
Water leaks, pest infestation and general contract repairs are the responsibility of a rental unit’s landlord. As economically disadvantaged families tend to reside in these units, they are at the mercy of their landlord. Water damage leads to mold; pest infestation carries allergens; both of these conditions create a significant trigger for asthma in children. Even a child without an asthma history may become asthmatic as a result of repeated and chronic exposure to such poor indoor air quality.
School absences are of particular concern; children who miss more than 18 school days are year are more likely to drop out of school. Children with asthma miss more days of school due to their disease compared to children without asthma. The number of missed days rises with severity—on average a child with severe and persistent symptoms misses 11.5 days of school in a year. That’s a lot of missed homework and make up speech sessions. Asthma also affects a child’s sleep quality, which in turn affects a child’s ability to pay attention in class and lowers their quality school work.
What can you do?
- Know which children on your caseload have asthma and know how to deal with an asthma emergency, including the location of the child’s inhaler.
- Take a look at your therapy treatment room or classroom. Are the floors hard wood or are they carpeted? If hard wood, hooray! If carpeted, make sure they get vacuumed every day and shampooed at the end of the school week.
- Got pets? If there are in your classroom, better to send them to another home. Animals carry dander that can trigger asthma. If you have a pet at home, make sure your work wardrobe is free of pet hair.
- Are you working out of a trailer or portable classroom? These type of environments generally trap moisture than can turn into nasty mold. Make sure spills and leaks are taken care of quickly.
- Skip the perfume spritz and after shave before leaving the house for work. Fragrances can trigger an asthma episode.
- Refrain from fuzzy or scented materials, pillows or upholstered furniture; these can collect dust mites, which are (surprise!) asthma triggers. If the furniture must stay, vacuum it frequently.
- No clutter! Cockroaches and dust mites love clutter … and produce more asthma triggers.
- If your room has a window that faces high volume vehicular traffic, keep it closed during the vulnerable morning hours and cold temperatures.
- Stay away from phthalate-based toys as phthalates are known triggers for asthma.
- Don’t use pesticide sprays in your room. Go for integrated pest management strategies instead.
- Like team work? Collaborate with your school nurse and district’s administration to develop an asthma management plan at your school if one does not exist. Another excellent resource is to adopt ideas from the IAQ Tools for Schools Action Kit. Work with your district’s transportation department to monitor school bus engine exhaust near open windows.
Although asthma is prevalent, with some forethought and preventive measures, it can be controlled. Now breathe a sigh of relief!
Anastasia Antoniadis, MA, is with the Tuscarora (Pennsylvania) Intermediate Unit and works as a state consultant for Early Intervention Technical Assistance through the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. She earned a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from City College of the City University of New York and a master’s degree in public health from Temple University. She was a practicing pediatric SLP for 14 years before becoming an early childhood consultant for Pennsylvania’s early intervention system. Her public health studies have been in the area of environmental health and data mapping using geographic information system technology. You can follow her on Twitter @SLPS4HlthySchools.