People with asthma equate it to breathing through a straw stuffed with cotton. The signature wheezing and shortness of breath occur when the airways or bronchial tubes in the lungs are exposed to an irritant and become inflamed and constricted.

Free Asthma Screenings

May is National Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, and allergists are conducting free screenings across the country. The program is sponsored by the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Visit to find a convenient screening near you.

Asthma cannot be cured, but through education and medication, symptoms can be controlled.

Asthma is an overreaction of the body’s immune system to foreign substances or microbes. When exposure happens, proteins called antibodies produce “immunoglobulin E” which attaches itself to the lungs through a process called “sensitization.” This is a good thing unless too much occurs. When that happens and the person is re-exposed to the substance, the reaction creates chemicals called leukotrienes that cause the muscles in the airways to contract. The result is an asthma attack.

Asthma affects quality of life for more than 32 million people in the U.S., and the number is rising. Asthma can lead to hospitalizations, lost work time and, occasionally, death. People in the midst of an asthma attack feel like they are suffocating. Until symptoms subside, they are.

Asthma Medication Alert

The Food and Drug Administration has just announced that seven-metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) – commonly used to treat asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – must gradually be removed from pharmaceutical shelves. MDIs contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that propel the medication from the inhaler into the lungs. However, CFCs are also an environmental hazard because they deplete ozone. EPA regulations issued under the Clean Air Act require the phase-out of all ozone-depleting substances. Inhalers that do not use CFCs remain available. Health care providers can discuss these MDI alternatives.

Heredity sometimes appears to play a role, but researchers still do not know why air pollution and grass – common irritants for outdoor asthma  – or the furnace and family pet – common irritants for indoor asthma – trigger attacks. Or why breathing through the mouth – typical during exercise and strenuous construction work – leads to exercise-induced asthma  in some people while others are not troubled.  Occupational asthma (OA), which is caused by breathing dust, fumes, vapors or other irritants at work, is still another manifestation. Fifteen percent of all asthma cases are job-related, and OA is the most prevalent form of occupational lung disease. The construction environment is full of potential irritants. Laborers can develop OA from exposure to cement, grout, lime, dust, diesel emissions, solvents and paint.

Adherence to the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act – Section 5(a)(1) – which requires employers to furnish employment “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” lessens the likelihood of OA. Local exhaust ventilation, wet dust suppression and personal protective equipment such as respirators will reduce exposures to many OA triggers.  Additionally, secluded areas where Laborers can retreat from whatever is triggering their asthmatic symptoms should be accessible. Asthma attacks can occur with no warning. That means Laborers should have their prescribed asthma medications with them at all times. Contractors should also have an emergency plan in place to handle urgent health situations, including severe asthma attacks.

Asthma kills 11 Americans every day. It leads to 10 million doctor visits annually and two million trips to the emergency room, of which about 500,000 go on to become hospitalizations. Asthma is a leading cause of absenteeism at the workplace and at school. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, between medical care and lost days at work, asthma’s cost to the nation runs $18 billion a year.

National Asthma Forum

Community leaders from across the nation will be in Washington, D.C., June 17-18 to share asthma management strategies as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Asthma Forum.

Awareness of asthma triggers can help ward off an attack. The American Lung Association suggests maintaining a chart of irritants and activities that provoke your asthma attacks and then meeting with your health care provider to find solutions. The more you know about your asthma, the better you can manage its distress.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]