Downwind of trouble

Asthma: A new study suggests children can get asthma from prolonged exposure to smog.

February 11, 2002

WHEN IS HEALTHY exercise a risky proposition for Maryland children? When the air is dirty. Too much of the time.

A new study published in the medical journal Lancet shows that smog may cause -- not just aggravate -- asthma in children who play outdoor sports. An athletic child in a smog-polluted community has triple the chance of developing the potentially life-threatening, chronic lung condition compared with a child who plays where the air is clear, the California researchers said.

Their findings have been hailed as the first evidence of a causal link between smog and the panic of shortness of breath and inflamed airways endured by more than 9 million Americans, including some 50,000 children and 97,000 adults in Maryland.

Critics suggest there may be other culprits to blame for the new cases of asthma that developed among 265 of the more than 3,500 children tracked for five years, but the researchers say that in smoggy cities, the children who were most active -- involved in multiple outdoor sports -- had the greatest chance of developing asthma.

"On days when air pollution levels are expected to be high, children should limit prolonged outdoor exertion," Dr. Rob McConnell, the study's lead author and associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, told the Los Angeles Times.

While much is yet to be learned about the ill effects of smog, this is clear: Maryland's children are at risk.

In 2001, Maryland had 24 days of unhealthy air quality -- almost a month's worth of air dirty enough to irritate the lungs, according to the state Department of the Environment. Ten of these were "code red" days, hazardous to all, not just those sensitive to smog. During the previous year, Maryland logged 14 bad air days.

Maryland and 10 of its counties have some of the worst smog in the country, ranked right behind Southern California cities, Houston and Atlanta, according to the American Lung Association's last air quality report card. And Anne Arundel County, buffeted by winds bearing pollution from power plants in states to the west and south, was rated the 10th worst of 668 counties studied for ozone pollution.

The environment and citizens suffer.

Rain washes the nitrogen from air pollution down into the Chesapeake Bay, where it chokes out the oxygen needed to keep this resource viable, environmental experts contend. And in Baltimore, where about 10 percent of elementary school-age children have asthma, the lung ailment is the No. 1 cause of medical absences from school, says Dr. Peter Beilenson, city health commissioner.

"We're downwind, so what's the answer? That we should tell our children to stay indoors?" laments Dr. Gwen DuBois, a Sinai Hospital internist, board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility and mother of two children with asthma. "Why should our children have to suffer? One state shouldn't pollute another."

Aggressive enforcement of air quality regulations and lawsuits pursued against scofflaws have helped reduce emissions during the past decade.

This new study adds fuel to the argument that this is no time for the Bush administration to cater to energy industry groups who claim that installing pollution controls will hinder their ability to serve the nation's power needs.

The administration plans to revise federal Clean Air Act provisions that require old power plants to install pollution-curbing technology whenever those facilities undergo major renovations.

Maryland and other states have a lawsuit pending against 11 power plants in the Midwest and South for failing to comply, and the states cannot afford to have the regulatory legs cut from under them.

Last week, state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and local physicians called on the Environmental Protection Agency to remember the health concerns of Marylanders when it reconsiders the clean air requirements. The Clean Air Act must be not be weakened.

Until government and industry ensure that the air is safe to breathe, the daily air quality forecast should take on greater urgency for Maryland parents, coaches, schools, interscholastic sports authorities and summer camps.

There's no haze in the message of this new asthma study: Smog might make your child sick.

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