By Marcia Anderson
Many schools have shown a high incidence of students missing valuable school days due to asthma and allergies. In many of the same schools that report a high incidence of absenteeism, we have also found cockroach infestations in cafeterias, storage closets and teacher break rooms.
Is there a relationship between cockroach exposure, allergies and asthma?
Most people with asthma have allergic responses in their bronchial tubes when they breathe in particles of the right size and shape and composed of materials recognized by their immune system. Exposure to things like mold, cat dander, ragweed, pollen, and rodent and cockroach droppings can elicit an allergic reaction.
The proteins in cockroach feces and their decomposing bodies are of just the right size to be lifted into the air, inhaled and recognized by the immune system as a signal to make an allergic reaction in some people. This is asthma. Airborne cockroach allergens will stick to particles, like dust, that quickly settle onto dust-trapping fabrics found on upholstered furniture, carpets and curtains. Activities like vacuuming, or even walking may stir up these allergens.
An asthma attack can happen when a student is exposed to “asthma triggers.” One child’s triggers can be very different from those of another child or an adult with asthma.
What Causes the Allergic Reaction? The job of the immune system is to find foreign substances, such as viruses and bacteria, and get rid of them. This protects us from dangerous diseases. People with allergies have supersensitive immune systems that react when they inhale, swallow or touch certain substances such as pollen or dust that contain the allergens. Some people are born with allergies. Others seem to acquire these allergic sensitivities as they grow older.
Asthma Studies: A 2014 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology showed marked geographic differences in allergen exposure and sensitivity in inner city children. Early exposure to cockroach allergens can actually cause asthma to develop in preschool aged children. Inhaling particles from cockroaches can cause coughing and wheezing in babies less than 12 months of age. A lack of understanding about asthma and its treatment may cause further risk of severe, undertreated asthma. In many low income communities, coughing and wheezing are accepted as part of normal growing up and medical care may not be sought because it isn’t considered necessary, or it is too difficult to access.
A National Institutes of Health research project demonstrated a definitive connection between income and the severity of asthma in the population (http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/sept98/niaid-21.htm). The study compared people hospitalized for asthma in six major U.S. cities. It found that the lower the average income, the more frequent the need for hospitalization for severe asthmatic attacks.
Exposure to the things that stimulate asthma like cockroaches, second hand smoke, mold, and air pollution are often greater in poor households. In dwellings where the amount of cockroach allergens are high, exposure is high and the rate of hospitalization for asthma goes up.
Keeping your home and family safe: The EPA recommends that you use Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a smart, sensible and sustainable approach to pest control. Smart because IPM creates a safer and healthier environment by managing pests and reducing children’s exposure to pests and pesticides. Sensible since practical strategies are used to reduce sources of food, water and shelter for pests in buildings. Sustainable because the emphasis is on prevention that makes it an economically advantageous approach.
Actions you can take: From cracks to drain traps to groceries, cockroaches can find a way into your home in the oddest of places. Focus on sanitation to eliminate food sources, moisture sources, and harborage for the insects. At least every two to three days, vacuum or sweep areas that might attract cockroaches.
Allergen concentrations are generally highest in kitchens where there is plenty of food and water for cockroaches. Keep counters, sinks, tables and floors clean, dry and free of clutter. Clean dishes, crumbs and spills right away. Store food in airtight containers. Seal cracks or openings around or inside cabinets to keep cockroaches out.
Next are bedrooms where people inhale the allergens that have settled into bedding. Wash bedding regularly in hot water and remove any unnecessary fabrics like curtains and upholstered furniture. Replace carpeting with smooth flooring that can be damp-mopped.
Controlling Cockroaches. To prevent and treat cockroach infestations in your home use IPM methods first – sanitation followed by low-impact pesticides such as baits, or gels.
EPA offers more information about cockroaches and asthma along with a Citizen’s Guide to Pest Control and Pesticide Safety. We also recommend reviewing EPA’s Asthma Checklist and exploring the EPA-sponsored Asthma Community Network website.
About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.