Decreasing Asthma in Pierce County is a Community Responsibility

Last Wednesday, to recognize World Asthma Day, Tacoma Nursing and Healthcare Leadership faculty members, Dr. Janet Primomo and Dr. Robin Evans-Agnew, gathered community health leaders to present on this year’s theme : how the community can be involved in reducing asthma across the across the state, particularly in the Pierce County area.

“This is a community effort,” said Evans-Agnew.  “It’s about advocacy. It’s about changing the way we think.”

Percentage wise, Pierce County has a slightly higher rate of asthma occurrences than the rest of the country, and the rate is far higher in low income communities than the rest of the population.

This is due in large part to the low quality of government subsidized housing with which they are provided. Poorly constructed houses with little ventilation and built of subpar materials will foster the growth of many types of asthma irritants such as mold.

The primary reason, however, for the prevalence of asthma in Pierce County, particularly in low income and Native American communities, is wood smoke.

Though clean energy is being produced, it is for the most part unaffordable for middle class and low income families. Electric heating can also be out of the price range of many low income families, so they opt for wood burning, particularly on Native American reservations in this area.

“Wood smoke is the next tobacco in our country,” said Gillian Mittelstaedt, of Tribal Healthy Homes Northwest.

The particles of wood smoke are so small they can bypass the lung’s defense systems and enter the blood stream in only 60 seconds, filling the lungs and body with toxins.

As Mittelstaedt explained, convincing people that wood smoke is harmful can be very difficult; wood is natural, and has been burned for heat for centuries. The problem, according to Mittelstaedt, is that there is little conclusive research on the effects of wood smoke after it enters the body.

“If we don’t have data, how are we going to change policy?” she asked the audience.

While the various organizations in the community, such as Puget Sound Asthma Coalition, are working to implement legislation that will ensure early care providers and school faculty will fully understand how to treat children with asthma and minimize risk of its development at early ages, this will not be enough until the community becomes engaged in prioritizing clean air, Evans-Agnew explained.

Through partnerships all throughout the community, Pierce County can begin to improve quality of life for people with asthma, and possibly prevent more occurrences.