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Budget Cut to City Asthma Program Triggers Concerns

New America Media, News Report, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Nov 21, 2008

Editor's note: San Francisco budget cuts have wiped out funding for an asthma-prevention program at the public health department that aimed to reduce the city's high rates of the disease among school children and low-income residents. NAM editor Ngoc Nguyen reports on the budget cuts and a news briefing on asthma and efforts to replace toxic cleaning products with safer "green' products in public schools and homes.

SAN FRANCISCOThe city this week defunded a public health program to reduce asthma triggers in schools and at home at a time when the San Francisco's childhood asthma rates are higher than state or national figures.

The budget for the San Francisco Asthma Task Force -- $102,000 for the fiscal yearwas "cut to zero," said Karen Cohn, who heads the task force at the city's Department of Public Health. Cohn announced the budget cut yesterday during a New American Media news briefing for ethnic media journalists about reducing toxic exposures in schools and homes.

Paste alt hereSpeakers from left to right: Karen Cohn, Dr. Nadine Burke, Alicia Culver, Maria Fernandez, Cynthia Knowles.

City departments are being asked to slash their programs, in order to close a $90-million shortfall. The public health department sustained the biggest cuts. Health officials announced $10 million in cuts this week, with another $17 decrease to come.

The cuts means a variety of Asthma Task Force programs to educate physicians and parents about asthma and studies of asthma hospitalizations and interventions in the schools to reduce asthma-inducing cleaning products will be halted midway.

The Task Force was in the process of buying microfiber mops and washer devices that reduce the amount of cleaning products needed to be used in 40 city public schools, including 29 of the worst-performing ones.

"I truly feel sad for the school district," Cohn said. "I wish $25,000 could go back into our budgetWe haven't finished the job yet."

microfiber mopsAlicia Culver of the Green Purchasing Institute
shows green cleaning products.

Asthma sufferers are sensitive to "asthma-gens" or allergenswhich cause the airways to constrict and fill up with mucous, making breathing difficult. Symptoms of uncontrolled asthma include coughing and wheezing. Asthma can be controlled with medicines, but eliminating or reducing exposure to triggers is critical. If left untreated, chronic asthma deprives the brain of oxygen and scars the lung tissue.

Studies show indoor air quality impacts children's school performance.
If you improve indoor air quality, test scores go up, increase student's ability to focus and improve school attendance, said Deborah Moore, executive director of The Green Schools Initiative.

"Asthma is the single biggest reason for school absenteeism," she said. "Children who are not in school can't learn."

In San Francisco, more than 26 percent of children ages 5 to 17 years in the city have been diagnosed with asthma some time in their life, compared to 18 percent in California and 14 percent nationally.

In addition, certain neighborhoods in the city with more low-income residents or people of color have higher rates of asthma-related hospitalizations or emergency room visits than other neighborhoods.

Dr. Nadine Burke, medical director of California Pacific Medical Center's Bayview Child Health Center, said her patients in the Bayview-Hunters Point have the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in the city.

Dr. BurkeDr. Nadine Burke, medical director, Bayview Child Health Center.

While residents always ask her about the air quality in their neighborhood, the pediatrician said indoor air quality is a bigger issue, because people spend more time indoorsat home, school or workplace--than outdoors.

Exposure to mold, cockroach and rodent droppings, dust mites, or fumes from cleaning products can trigger asthma, especially in people with other illness. Those conditions can be exacerbated by sub-standard housing, which often lacks adequate ventilation and light.

"Some families are afraid to open their windows or put barriers on windows," Burke said. "The quality of housing makes a huge difference."

Families who live in poor housing conditions often try to clean up their environments by using multiple, harsh cleaning products, adversely affecting their family's health.

Hundreds of less toxic "green" cleaners are now on the market, many with certifications. Cynthia Knowles of SF Environment Home Toxics Reduction program said the problem is sometimes the greener products are not accessible in all neighborhoods.

One option is to make alternative cleaners from common household ingredients such as baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice, which are inexpensive. Consumers can also flex their purchasing power by asking for greener cleaning products in stores, she said.

Paste alt hereEthnic media journalists attend newsbriefing on green cleaners.

Burke of the Bayview Child Health Center said a major effect of the budget cut is to decrease asthma awareness. She said education is very important, because many parents don't recognize the symptoms of asthma, including coughing and wheezing. Asthmatics also need to know what triggers or allergens to avoid.

"Asthma is a disease where education makes the biggest difference," Burke said. "Educationthat's how we keep children and adults out of the hospital."

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