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OPINION: Asthma is a serious problem, but what are the causes?

April 7, 2014 By Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Asthma is costing New York’s Medicaid system more than half a billion dollars a year, according to a report by the state Comptroller’s Office quoted in an Associated Press article posted on the Brooklyn Daily Eagle website.

The cost to the state is estimated to be $1.3 billion a year, the article continues. A large percentage of this cost is due to Medicaid expenditures. The only good news seems to be that asthma deaths have dropped by nearly 23 percent in the past decade.

There are several causes for asthma. One is hereditary. I have asthma, so did my mother and so did half the people in my mother’s family, to varying degrees.

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Another is environmental. Asthma has been blamed on air quality, mold in old apartment buildings, roaches in the same buildings, lack of exercise and many other factors. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, New York County (Manhattan), Brooklyn and the Bronx all are in the Top 10 for cancer risks caused by airborne chemicals. The city is also one of the 25 in the country in ozone pollution.

On the other hand, a survey by then-Mayor Bloomberg’s administration last year found that air pollution in New York City has reached its lowest levels in 50 years, For example, the level of sulfur dioxide in the air dropped 69 percent since 2008, possibly lowered by new emissions regulations that phased out obsolete “heavy” fuels like Number 6 oil. The city’s air quality may still be higher than most of the country’s, but these figures show a step in the right direction.

As we’ve mentioned, roaches have also been mentioned as a cause of asthma. According to the American Lung Association, “Roaches produce substances, or allergens, that aggravate asthma and cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to those substances …  These tiny particles can become airborne and contaminate the air in your home.”

Molds, also common in older buildings, are another asthma trigger. Molds send out tiny spores that float through the air. And of course, there’s also the danger of smoking and second-hand smoke.

While I don’t pretend to be a scientist, the problem with many of these explanations is that these conditions were often worse in the past. I know that air pollution is often horrific, but I find it difficult to believe than it’s any worse than it was during most of the 20th century, when factories and incinerators within most apartment buildings released smoke into the atmosphere day and night.

And smoking? The percentage of Americans who smoke has gone down from 45 percent in 1953 to a mere 22 percent in 2010. You can’t tell me that there’s more second-hand smoke today than there was in the days when people smoked in buses, at the office, in restaurants and even in doctors’ offices.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. Several scientists have remarked on the links between obesity, which has been rising steadily since the mass introduction of high-fructose corn syrup, and asthma. Food additives are another possible cause. The Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America has identified several common additives that may cause reactions, including sulfites, aspartame, MSG, tartrazine (a common food dye used in desserts and beverages) and others.

Whatever the cause is, the problem of asthma is a serious one that deserves more study.

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