New figures released by the Centers for Disease Control reveal that asthma rates in Connecticut have steadily risen over the past 10 years.
Between 2000 and 2010, asthma rates in the state have increased by 17 percent, according to Michelle Caul, manager of health education in the Connecticut office of the American Lung Association. These rates are growing even faster in Connecticut’s urban epicenters — most notably Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven. In the past decade, the Elm City had the highest hospitalization rate for asthma patients.
“We were hoping that the prevalence was going to plateau in the past few years,” said Director of the Yale Center for Asthma and Airway Disease, Dr. Geoffrey Chupp, who added that he and his colleagues were disappointed that these recent reports have not shown progress in limiting asthma cases in the state.
According to Chupp, asthma is triggered by a combination of a given individual’s genetics, environment and lifestyle. He added that geography is also important, noting that he believes the high number of asthma cases in the New Haven Area can be attributed to environmental factors such as air quality or proximity to the highway.
Desmond Batts, community organizer for the Hartford branch of the Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice, said that this correlation between geography and asthma rates has negative implications for minorities both in New Haven and across Connecticut. Batts added that not only are the number of Black and Hispanic asthma patients in Connecticut rising, but also that, of all asthma related hospital admissions, 50 to 75 percent of these individuals were Black or Hispanic.
“One of the things that we look at — and something that the data suggests— is that [waste incinerators] that tend to cause asthma, by releasing particulate matter into the air, are situated near communities of color,” Batts said. “Moreover, whenever a new incinerator is built, neighborhoods with large populations of people of color don’t turn out to town meetings to voice their opinion. These incinerators burn trash, and certain incinerators also convert this waste to energy.”
Batts said that, when CCEJ analyzed a GIS-generated map of the asthma rates around an incinerator, they found that asthma rates are highest within a mile of the incinerator, which he believes suggests a correlation between the two. Batts added that the CCEJ’s goal is to educate communities on how they can utilize legal resources to help block the construction of incinerators and trash processing plants.
Nevertheless, CEO of Environment and Human Health Inc. Nancy Alderman ’94 FES ’97 said he believes another factor is contributing to the rise in Connecticut asthma rates. According to Alderman, unregulated wood smoke, such as fire pits and chimneys in the summer, and indoor woods stoves and outdoor wood furnaces in the winter, may lead to the high hospitalization rates.
The county with the highest asthma rates in the United States is Windham County, a rural, less affluent Connecticut county, where residents are more likely to be burning wood as a source of heat, Alderman said. Alderman added that wood smoke contains many of the same components of cigarette smoke, which is highly regulated throughout the state.
“There’s plenty of speculation, but no real causes,” Caul said.
Caul said she is reluctant to blame asthma rates among minorities on any one factor, because she said she believes it is difficult to blame health issues on a particular social determinant.
According to Caul, the rapidly growing asthma rates among minority populations could be attributed to any number of factors, including access to healthy food, exposure to environmental triggers like highway exhaust or mold growing in a house, proper education on how to use asthma medication and access to health care.
Between 30 and 40 percent of Connecticut residents currently living with asthma do not take proper steps to control their asthma, according to Chupp. Still, Chupp said that proper inhaler techniques can treat the majority of asthmatics, keep them under control and maximize their quality of life.
Many of these untreated residents do not have adequate access to health care, Alderman said. Both Batts and Alderman suggested that recorded asthma rates, especially among minorities, could also increase by the time the next report, as more people get access to health care through the Affordable Care Act and more frequently visit hospitals.
“By the end of this decade, around 10 percent of the population is going to have asthma,” Chupp said. “We’re talking about 300,000 people [in Connecticut] having asthma — that’s a big number when you think about it.”
According to Caul, the Connecticut state government has started to combat asthma though asthma prevention programs in elementary schools, in addition to patient education programs for adults who already suffer from asthma.
Eleven percent of children living in Connecticut today have asthma.