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A Connection Made: Physical Activity, Asthma, and Air Pollution

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that the average adult get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. Unfortunately, in a region plagued with unhealthy levels of pollution and an epidemic of asthma, where and when we exercise can be just as important as how much exercise we get. This truth is exacerbated in the case of children, whose lungs are still developing and sucking in more air per pound than adults.

On May 3rd, 2017, GASP hosted Dr. Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir from the Pulmonology Division of Columbia University Medical Center to break this issue down and discuss her research, which is focused on understanding how to keep children living in urban environments polluted by air pollution active and healthy.

Asthma inflames and narrows the airways of 8.4 percent of all United States children, explained Dr. Lovinsky-Desir. In the U.S., asthma costs $56 billion, 10.5 million missed school days, and over 200 childhood deaths per year. This burden disproportionately falls on children exposed to poor air quality, namely minorities and city-dwellers.

To better understand the influence of pollution on asthmatic symptoms in New York City, Dr. Lovinsky-Desir and her research group asked a critical question: Does exposure to air pollutants negate the positive effects of exercise on overall lung health?

Some research certainly seemed to say so. Exercise increases respiration rates, meaning that active people suck more air pollution into their lungs. In environments with heavy air pollution, this had been associated with decreased lung growth in children and reduced lung function in adults. So the question that remains is this: Is exercising worth the risk?

To sort this out, Dr. Lovinsky-Desir strapped vests to 163 children between the ages of 9 and 14, 50 percent of whom were previously diagnosed with asthma. These vests were equipped with GPS units and monitors for black carbon, physical activity, and airway inflammation.

The data that Dr. Lovinsky-Desir collected over two 24-hour periods reveals just how complex an issue this really is. While active children experience 20 percent lower airway inflammation than non-active children, they were also exposed to 25 percent more black carbon. Black carbon, a large component of the particulate matter small enough to penetrate deep into our lungs, can suppress lung development in children. Because of this, it is difficult to say how much better off the active children truly are, especially if active while exposed to high doses of pollution.

Adding to the conversation on Wednesday were three panelists: Dr. Deborah Gentile, Director of Allergy and Asthma Clinical Research at the Allegheny Health Network; Dr. Ned Ketyer, a retired pediatrician with the Pediatric Alliance; and Patrice Tomcik, a Field Organizer for Moms Clean Air Force.

Dr. Gentile and Dr. Ketyer brought the topic back home, discussing their experience and research in the Pittsburgh area, where asthma plagues 26,000 children at rates 4 percent higher than the national average.

“Our findings are significant because they show that, despite the availability of local primary care providers, asthma specialists, and excellent controller medications, asthma is underdiagnosed and undertreated in many local children,” Dr. Gentile remarked previously. “They also suggest that poor regional air quality contributes to the local incidence and severity of asthmatic disease.”

Patrice Tomcik moved the discussion into a focus on natural gas development in rural areas surrounding Allegheny County. Tomcik has become a real leader on issues around fracking and methane, helping to educate and galvanize fellow parents in her community. Her voice strong with passion, she urged the audience to step up and defend our children’s health.

In a country-wide comparison of air quality, the State of the Air Report ranked our 12-county region eighth-worst for year-round fine particulate matter and 29th worst for ozone pollution. Allegheny County receives an “F” grade for both measures. With such serious air pollution plaguing our region, many athletes are searching for answers to the question: How do I protect myself from poor air quality. Dr. Lovinsky-Desir left the audience with this advice: Exercise during low traffic times (not rush hour), and stay away from major roads and highways. And, before you go out and exercise, visit to check your local air quality conditions.

This event was a part of Athletes United for Healthy Air, an initiative of GASP to engage athletes of Southwestern Pennsylvania in the campaign for cleaner, healthier air quality. Past events have explored the link between air pollution and cardiovascular health, neurological health, and autism. To learn more about Athletes United for Healthy Air, click here.

–Emily Persico, Student Conservation Association Sustainability Fellow

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