By Sally Darney
When my daughter decided to join a soccer team, I was delighted. Sports would provide healthy exercise, along with a host of other physical and mental benefits. So we were dismayed when she complained of tightness in her throat and difficulty breathing during the games.
A trip to the doctor revealed “exercise-induced asthma,” but thankfully she was able to manage her symptoms with an inhaler and stay on the team. I had little awareness of this disease at the time, but now know that childhood asthma is common, affecting nearly one in ten American children.
This month we celebrate Asthma Awareness Month learning about asthma triggers and the latest advances in medical treatment and comprehensive care for our children.
But what causes asthma to begin with? Asthma is a curious disease that can first appear in toddlers, school-aged children like my daughter, or even in adults. Furthermore, studies have shown ethnic and economic-related disparities of who is most at risk. African American children, children of certain Hispanic groups, and children living in poor communities are more likely to get asthma, and to suffer more severe attacks, than Caucasian children and those in the higher social-economic groups. (For more information, download America’s Children and the Environment.)
This disparity suggests that the causes of asthma involve a complex interplay of environmental and social-economic factors, which in turn interact with a genetic-based predisposition. These factors can play a role in both causing the disease itself, and in exacerbating the symptoms.
EPA researchers and partners from across the federal government are banding together to address asthma causes and disparities. I was fortunate to be on the taskforce behind the landmark report: The Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities.
Working with scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and other agencies, EPA is helping implement the Plan, which emphasizes how research into the causes of asthma can help inform ways to tackle this burdensome disease.
We can’t change our genetics, but we can change the “environmental stressors” that contribute to, and cause, asthma. To advance that work, researchers in ORD and from across the network of Centers for Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention, co-sponsored by EPA and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, are exploring causes of asthma that can be prevented even before a baby is born. For instance, recent research has revealed that women who smoke during pregnancy, or are exposed to high levels of air pollution and/or certain environmental chemicals, are at increased risk of having a baby who develops asthma as a child.
Armed with more knowledge about the causes of asthma, pregnant women, mothers of young children, health care providers and decision makers can take actions to avoid risky exposures and provide healthy, asthma-free environments for women and children—preventing asthma from the start.
I’ll never know why my daughter got asthma, but I am happy to work at a place that is looking to prevent it. I have faith that together our research will do that, and eliminate racial and ethnic asthma disparities. Whether you play soccer or not, it’s a goal we can all shoot for.
About the Author: Sally Perreault Darney, Ph.D. is a senior health scientist at EPA working on coordinating Agency research on children’s environmental health.