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31-01-2012 | Immunology | Article

Asthma cost from air pollution higher than expected


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MedWire News: The economic cost of childhood asthma due to air pollution is significantly higher than expected, say US researchers.

"Recent research suggests the burden of childhood asthma attributable to air pollution has been underestimated in traditional risk assessments, and there are no estimates of these associated costs," write Sylvia Brandt (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and team.

In order to remedy this, Brandt and team carried out a study in Long Beach and Riverside in California, which are areas with high levels of air pollution and a large number of residents living near major roads.

They estimated that the additional asthma costs in these areas that can be directly attributed to air pollution are approximately US$ 18 million (€ 13.7 million) per year, around half of which is from new asthma cases caused by pollution.

Combining data accounting for asthma caused by air pollution (as opposed to other causes) and for a range of costs such as extra visits to the doctor, travel time, and prescriptions, Brandt and colleagues estimated that one episode of bronchitic symptoms (daily cough, congestion, phlegm, or bronchitis for at least 3 months consistently) cost an average of US$ 972 (€ 742) and US$ 915 (€ 699) in Riverside and Long Beach, respectively.

The annual costs of a typical person with asthma in Long Beach and Riverside were estimated to be US$ 3819 (€ 2922) and US$ 4063 (€ 3109), respectively. This translates to approximately 7% of a median family annual income in these areas, which the team says is concerning as it "is higher than the 5 percent considered to be a bearable or sustainable level of health care costs for a family."

Brandt and co-workers add that "the largest share of the cost of an asthma case was the indirect cost of asthma-related school absences."

This can have direct economic consequences, they note, as such absences often lead to parents or caregivers missing work.

"There is growing epidemiological and toxicological evidence that exposure to air pollution is both a cause of asthma and a trigger for exacerbations," write the authors in the European Respiratory Journal.

They say: "The fact that together these two communities account for only 7% of the population of California suggests that the state-wide costs are truly substantial.

"While these estimates are specific to Southern California, the approach is applicable and relevant to urban and transportation planning beyond this setting. Indeed, over 50% of the population is estimated to live within 150 meters of major roads in ten European cities studies recently studied (Barcelona, Valencia, Brussels, Vienna, Bilbao, Ljubljana, Rome, Seville, Stockholm, and Granada)."

By Helen Albert

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