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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

Air Pollution Increases School Absences From Illness.

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Children are especially susceptible to the lung-burning gases and tiny particles that lodge in the airways. "The younger the child, the greater the risk they have because their immune systems and organs are not developed," says Reynold Panettieri Jr., MD, chief of the asthma section of the pulmonary, allergy, and critical care division at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Though Panettieri tells WebMD that pollution levels in many areas of the country have been reduced in the past 20 years, the rates of respiratory illness and asthma continue to climb. And he says scientists have yet to explain why the breathing difficulties haven't declined also.

Even though overall pollution is less, that doesn't matter on hot, muggy days when any existing pollution is at its worst. "Pretty profound epidemiological evidence exists that as the air quality declines, emergency room visits for respiratory illnesses increase," Panettieri says.

Mark Mallard, MD, medical director of Baylor University Medical Center's Asthma and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center in Dallas, says that children in lower income urban areas suffer the most from respiratory ailments, especially asthma. There are a number of reasons for this, he tells WebMD, but certainly a major factor is their exposure to air pollution. In addition, these children are often in contact with more dust mites, molds, and roach droppings in their homes, and that contributes to breathing ailments.

"There's no place to hide," Mallard says of the risk of breathing distress, because in urban areas the hot summer temperatures make pollution risks even more acute than elsewhere. "Some of my patients parody the song 'Summertime, and the breathing is harder, fish are jumping, and the ozone is high.'"

Saira Rahim, RRT, coordinator of education and advocacy for Children's Medical Center of Dallas' Respiratory Care Services, echoes Mallard's concern for inner city children.

"The biggest [asthma] population is inner-city kids who are exposed to more pollutants," she says. "The best thing is to keep the child in and away from exposure."

But keeping a kid indoors is not always easy or practical. Mallard and his colleagues researched another option. They conducted a study in eight Dallas schools in which school personnel administered an inhaled steroid to asthmatic youngsters twice a day. This relieved the inflammation and tightening of muscles that narrowed their airways that causes the disease's characteristic coughing and wheezing.

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