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Air pollution making children sick

I installed solar panels on my roof in September. I made my decision after my monthly energy bill hit an all-time high, and then exceeded it the next month. But perhaps my most compelling reason to go solar is the least intuitive: I want to help stamp out asthma.

As a hospital-based pediatrician at Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas, I treat hundreds of children with asthma each year. In fact, asthma is the most common chronic disease of children, affecting nearly one in 10, and costing Americans an estimated $56 billion annually. During attacks, children gasp for breath and wheeze. An unfortunate handful of kids do not survive. And what might seem to be a case of genetic bad luck is only partly so; our air quality, which is dramatically worsened when fossil fuels are burned, has a profound impact upon asthma as well.

 

Unfortunately, our federal government is choosing to ignore the health dangers of air pollution. A few weeks ago, under orders from President Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency dropped its plan to strengthen smog standards. Had the tougher smog standards been enacted, Austin would have been under intense pressure to improve our air, as we currently skate on the precipice of nonattainment. The discarded standards could have prevented 12,000 premature deaths and 58,000 asthma attacks each year. Not to be outdone, Republicans in the House of Representatives plan to introduce legislation this week, the Transparency in Regulatory Analysis of Impacts on the Nation Act, which would delay several important protections under the Clean Air Act. By loosening restrictions on mercury and cross-state pollution, the proposed act would lead to tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year.

My experience with asthma and ozone is not one of abstract statistics, but of visceral reality. On the last Saturday of August, Austin had its highest ozone levels since early June. I was asked again and again to admit children from the ER with severe asthma attacks. Normally, one or two asthmatics may come in throughout my 12 hours of call, and usually they are stable enough to go to a regular ward bed. That day, however, I admitted three young children within two hours of arriving for my shift. All three were struggling so much that they required admission to our Intermediate Care Unit, which is one step from Intensive Care. Throughout the day, three more were admitted to the unit with remarkably similar stories: kids who do not normally have problematic asthma going downhill in a hurry. Several additional children were admitted to regular ward beds.

One doctor's experience on a given day does not prove a correlation. Medicine depends upon research to teach us the difference between fact and illusion. In the case of asthma and air quality, the facts are clear. On ozone action days, when smog interacts with a hot sun, asthma sends more children (and adults) to emergency rooms, physicians offices and hospitals. A recent study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology sums it up well: "Warm weather patterns of ozone ... disproportionately affect children with asthma and appear responsible for severe attacks that could have been avoided."

Everyone has an opportunity to decrease the burden of asthma. In the hospital, my role is limited to prescribing oxygen and airway openers like steroids and albuterol, battling an attack that is already under way. My contribution to our community's air quality is in some regards more important, as it aims to prevent attacks before they occur. Because solar energy captured on my roof is coal energy not burned, I am helping my patients by going solar. Solar cells generate no air pollution, and therefore, virtually no ill health effects. Wind power and other renewables have similarly healthy profiles, in stark contrast to fossil fuels.

Luckily, our city government understands the appeal of renewable energy and provides generous incentives for solar energy installation. Typically, the systems pay for themselves in a few years. Our federal government needs to take a page from our local leaders, stop acquiescing to powerful polluters and consider the children with asthma who can be saved a trip to the hospital.

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