Breaking the Asthma/Air Pollution Correlation

by Debra McNeil on February 18, 2014

In an ever-growing industrial world, studies have been done to link increasing air pollution to high prevalence medical conditions.  One of the clearest examples of this is the correlation between air pollution and aggravated asthma (Koenig 1999).  Asthma is a condition in which the airways are hypersensitive and constrict in the presence of pollutants and toxins, making it difficult to breathe.  This condition is exacerbated by the high concentration of air pollutants in inner cities, and parts of the world that cook inside with little ventilation. Asthma is an increasingly common condition that affects the quality of life of both children and adults, and it takes a toll on health care and economic systems worldwide.

In the United States alone, 25 million people struggle with asthma. Asthma is the most common chronic condition in children, and it becomes especially prevalent in inner cities due to the higher concentration of pollutants.  Although air pollution does not cause asthma, it does make it significantly worse and has been shown to proportionally correlate with the frequency of asthma attacks. This is an environmental problem that has destructive effects on population health; unfortunately, there is no immediate solution and the problem will seemingly only get worse.  As populations increase exponentially, cities turn into megacities and viable land is reduced.  There is overcrowding and an increased demand for manufactured goods and food, which can be satisfied most easily via mass-produced items.  Mass production places more of a strain on already decreasing natural resources, and ultimately leads to increased emissions and air pollution.  Unless there is a significant switch to clean, green energy, the only way to compensate for an increasing population is to indirectly increase air pollution. Thus, the prevalence of conditions like asthma that have an environmental influence are increased as well.

Asthma in the US is estimated to cost $3,300 per person in medical expenses, missed school and workdays, and early death.  Our healthcare system is pressured to provide enough consultations and medication to treat the rising number of asthmatics, and the economy is at risk due to the number of people forced to stay home from work.  Children suffering from asthma often miss school, which affects their education and can hinder their academic progress.  This scenario has demonstrated that issues with the environment have a lasting effect on population health, which then affects the health care system and the economy.  In the United States and other industrialized countries, treatment for this health issue must start with the environment, which will subsequently improve all other systems in the chain as well.  By reducing air pollution and environmental toxins, the major triggers for asthma attacks can be eliminated.

Worldwide, asthma affects about 300 million people and causes 250,000 deaths annually.  It is estimated that by 2025, 100 million more people will have asthma.  In many parts of the world, cooking is done over an open fire in a poorly ventilated room—thus introducing pollutants into the living environment.  The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood published a study about different methods of cooking, and found that open fires are more closely associated with asthma attacks than cooking with other fuels (Wong et al. 2013).  Luckily, air pollution via cooking is much easier to eliminate than pollution via industry.  Three billion people today heat their homes or cook with open fires, which means that there are 3 billion cases of preventable asthma.  By educating people about cooking pollutants and creating an affordable, implementable alternative to open fires, we can decrease the prevalence of asthma.  There is an initiative called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which partners with companies and donors to promote biomass and biogas stoves to reduce indoor air pollution.  There are also new WHO guidelines on household fuel combustion, which aim to improve indoor air quality and the welfare of people worldwide.

Environmental public health is involved in all aspects of life, from the health of the environment to the health of the population, and even to the economy.  By focusing on improving environmental issues, such as air pollution, widespread human conditions like asthma will decrease.



Breysse PN, Diette GB, Matsul EC, Butz AM, Hansel NN, McCormack MC: Indoor air pollution and asthma in children. Proc AM Thorac Soc 2010, 7(2):102-106.

Koenig, Jane Q. “Air pollution and asthma.” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 104.4 (1999): 717-722.

O’Connor GT, Neas L, Vaughn B, et al.: Acute respiratory health effects of air pollution on children with asthma in US inner cities. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2008, 121(5):1133-1139.

Wong, Gary WK, et al. “Cooking fuels and prevalence of asthma: a global analysis of phase three of the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC).” The Lancet Respiratory Medicine (2013).

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