Air pollution is attacking lungs of our young |

Air pollution is attacking lungs of our young

Summer will soon be upon us again and with it clear skies. That is, clear of rain and fog, but, unfortunately, not clear of smog. Each summer, winds carry nitrous oxides from the tailpipes of the Bay Area and Sacramento our way. The ultraviolet rays of summer’s hot sunshine convert these to ozone; an odorless, colorless, tasteless pollutant. Unfortunately Grass Valley records some of the highest average readings in the state.

Until recently, researchers believed that ozone merely exacerbated asthma and other respiratory illness. Now new evidence suggests that it actually causes asthma, the most common chronic disease of childhood.

Asthma afflicts 4.8 million children in the United States. Rates have risen 160 percent in the past 15 years amongst children under five. Asthma attacks all age groups but often starts in childhood. The lung’s air passages become inflamed, boosting nerve sensitivity so they become easily irritated. When an attack is triggered, the linings of the passages swell, narrowing the airways and reducing the flow of air in and out of the lungs. The asthmatic experiences breathlessness and wheezing which can last for minutes or hours and can be mild or even fatal.

USC researchers studied 3,535 non-asthmatic, Southern California children. Children who lived in high-ozone communities and played three or more sports developed new cases of asthma more often than those who lived in less polluted areas and also more often than those children in high ozone areas who did not participate in sports. The children you would expect to be among the healthiest but who were passing greater quantities of ozone through their lungs developed asthma the most often. The ozone levels in Grass Valley were comparable to, and sometimes higher than, the levels of ozone in the high pollution communities.

Both the federal and the California Clean Air Acts set ozone standards at a level previously thought to protect the health of sensitive populations. However, the standards were based on adults. The new research suggests that these standards, which our county has exceeded, are themselves inadequate to protect our budding athletes.

A study of 638 children in Israel revealed that children living in areas of high levels of particulate matter pollution were more likely to develop asthma. A London study of a quarter million patient records revealed that adults sought medical help for respiratory complaints more often on days following high levels of particulate pollution than on other days.

Nevada County’s ambient measurements for particulate matter are not especially high. However, many complaints are received in the winter from localized smoke pollution. These pockets of smoke may never make it to the particulate matter sensor on Litton Hill but they do make it into someone’s lungs. Whether those lungs have already been damaged or irritated during the summer by ozone is unknown.

In a Canadian study of people with existing mild to moderate airway obstruction, when smoke levels increased due to agricultural residue burning, virtually all women and 16 percent of the men in the study reported difficulty breathing. This included cough, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath.

People have probably burned biomass for thousands of years, often indoors. Of course, they didn’t live as long as we do, nor did they enjoy our quality of life. In developing nations, where twigs and dung are still burned indoors for heating and cooking, about a million children under age 5 die each year from this smoke exposure.

While there is still a need for more research on the health effects of airborne pollutants, the growing body of data suggests a long term need to clean up our air and a short-term need to adapt our lifestyles to minimize exposure and harmful health effects.

Bruce Conklin is a Nevada County supervisor. He represents the 3rd District, which is centered on Grass Valley.

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