May 6 marks World Asthma Day, and it also marks the release of a major study on climate, the National Climate Assessment. The timing may be coincidental, but the connection isn’t: climate change represents a major new threat to health and is already contributing to increases in asthma around the globe. California has much to do to protect the health and environments of its residents.
Climate Change Is Worsening the Problem of Asthma
Climate change exacerbates air pollution, and as we know, components of outdoor air pollution connect strongly to asthma onset and exacerbation. Increased temperatures due to climate change lead to increases in ground-level ozone, which causes airway inflammation and damages lung tissues, leading to breathing problems, coughing, wheezing, and chest pain. We have seen that exposure to elevated levels of ground-level ozone increases hospital admissions for asthma, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, allergic rhinitis, and other respiratory diseases. Climate change also increases particulate matter, a heterogeneous mixture of small solid or liquid particles that can be inhaled, which causes lung damage, breathing problems, and can trigger asthma.
Not only does climate change increase the components of outdoor air pollution that exacerbate asthma, but it also increases the presence of ragweed and other allergic pollens. Weed pollen, shown to increase in climate change simulation studies, and grass pollen have been associated with children’s asthma exacerbations, emergency room visits, and hospitalizations. As the National Climate Assessment makes clear, these effects are already happening throughout the US, and are predicted to get worse.
For Asthma, There Is No Adaptation
Addressing climate change often gets discussed under two broad categories: mitigation (reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause the problem, in order to slow or stop it), and adaptation (putting plans and systems in place to manage the effects of climate change). In many arenas of climate change and health, both of these are important – but when it comes to asthma in particular, there is no adaption. Any level of global warming, including what we are already experiencing, makes life worse for asthma sufferers and triggers the development of asthma in people who might otherwise not get it. For asthma, mitigating climate change is the only climate action that makes a difference.
The good news is that is there is much we can do to mitigate climate change and address asthma.
Mitigating Climate Change While Improving Asthma
Transitioning to clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions will mitigate climate change while also reducing environmental asthma triggers. This is why PHI’s Regional Asthma Management & Prevention (RAMP) collaborates with diverse partners in the areas of public health, environmental justice, environmental health, and social justice to do just that.
RAMP is part of the Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative, which aims to reduce diesel pollution (a large source of particulate matter) in the Bay Area’s low-income communities and communities of color. The group has worked to implement regulatory actions and other incentives to cut diesel emissions from trucks and school buses and enforce idling regulations for trucks and buses to reduce exposure to diesel exhaust.
RAMP is also part of the California Cleaner Freight Coalition, whose mission is to create transformational changes to the freight transportation system in California in order to protect the public’s health, clean the environment, and promote social justice and equity. RAMP also coordinates Community Action to Fight Asthma (CAFA), a network of asthma coalitions representing communities across California. Each year, CAFA identifies bills and regulations aimed at reducing environmental asthma triggers among children where they live, learn, and play.
These are just a few examples of the many ways asthma advocates can partner with others to simultaneously protect our health and our environment. Thinking about asthma prevention strategies in the context of climate change not only will help us identify new approaches but will also help us begin to tackle one of the largest public health challenges of our time. As we focus on asthma today and throughout Asthma Awareness Month in May, now is the time to recognize the connection between climate change and asthma and act to prevent more human suffering.
Anne Kelsey Lamb, MPH, is director of PHI’s Regional Asthma Management and Prevention (RAMP) program, and co-director of PHI’s Center for Climate Change & Health.