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Asthma Attacks

A recent report by Mark Mendell from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory notes that a majority of surveyed elementary schools in California failed to meet minimum health standards in terms of ventilation and air quality in their classrooms.  

This is a big problem, largely because stagnant indoor air, if not properly circulated, poses harmful risks for children with asthma, keeping them from school and interrupting their education.

As the CDC notes, asthma is not only the primary reason cited for school absenteeism, but is a leading chronic illness among children, one that is felt more intensely among poor and minority populations.  

President Obama even noted air quality as a major concern in his address on climate this week, mentioning the fact that we must start protecting “our health by protecting the air we breathe from harmful pollution,” indoors and out.   

The shocking results of this study represent an opportunity for communities and schools to implement solutions that not only increase health and school attendance, but actually help schools in California get more money to teach their children: to the tune of $33 million a year.  

And solutions to this issue could not come soon enough given the poor air quality that is omnipresent in the lives of children who live in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the state (many in the same neighborhoods that are included in Dr. Mendell’s study).

So how strong is this relationship among the most vulnerable children in California?

To find out, we compiled data from the California Department of Statewide Planning on child asthma hospitalizations by ZIP code in 2009, combined it with data from the U.S. Census Bureau on child poverty in the same ZIP codes, and put them together in the interactive graphic below:  


Source: American Community Survey, 5-year Estimates; California Office of Statewide Planning and Development

As you can see above, there is a clear relationship between asthma and poverty in California by ZIP code, following the black trend line. As child poverty in a ZIP code increases, so does the number of children who are admitted to the ER for asthma, a fact consistent with research in the field.

To get a sense of the impact, hover over the outlying blue bubble at the top and you’ll see that the Southern LA ZIP code 90044 experienced 486 visits to the ER by children related to asthma in 2009. Shockingly, almost half of the ZIP code’s child population lives in poverty (43 percent).

In comparison, among the eighteen ZIP codes that reported the fewest number of ER visits by children due to asthma (12 total), the average poverty rate was 12 percent.

Child poverty is a national scourge that has shown little sign of falling as the economy recovers, but it also interacts with a child’s built environment, affecting their long term health and well-being. From schools, to outdoor air, right on down to individual homes, the structured environment a child negotiates on a daily basis goes hand in hand with their development and health.

Poor air quality, indoor and out, increases a child’s incidence of asthma and other upper respiratory illnesses – a fact our colleagues here at Next Generation spoke to in their white paper on the subject last December.


A Way Forward: Healthier Kids and Money for Schools

But, in the face of these concerns, how can communities come together at the intersection of school infrastructure, air quality, education, and children’s health? 

Individuals can’t reverse neighborhood pollution alone, but as Dr. Mendell points out in interviews on this subject, most classrooms have operable windows they can use to mix stagnant indoor air with outdoor air, limiting the concentration of airborne pollutants inside and thereby helping children breathe easier.

Yet few of the surveyed classrooms in Dr. Mendell’s two year study used this as a strategy to curb airborne irritants.   

These efforts, like opening windows and being conscious of air quality in schools, would help reduce the amount of airborne pollution and asthma triggers (like pollen or dust) that settle indoors and send kids home or keep them from school all together.

With a reduction in airborne irritants, kids with asthma are at a lower risk of exposure and end up healthier as a result. And, because school funding in California is largely based on Average Daily Attendance, the more school days a child logs, the more funding the school districts can claim.

In fact Dr. Mendell estimates that better ventilation in schools could reduce school absences by 3.4 percent, increasing school funding by $33 million while increasing instructional costs by a mere $4 million.  

Not bad for opening a window.

Combine these small efforts – like opening a window in a classroom or at home – with the type of investments that my colleague James Barba is calling on the governor to make in terms of school infrastructure (read: better ventilations systems in schools), and we can make much bigger things happen tomorrow.  

As the President himself mentioned, individual action can help produce a better environment, particularly for the “sake of our children, and the health…of all Americans.”     


Follow Rey Fuentes on Twitter: @ReyNextGen

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