Opportunity Council programs help fight impacts of asthma

Florence Nightingale was really ahead of her time. In the midst of 19th-century industrial Europe, this pioneer of modern nursing noted “the connection between the health and dwelling of the population is the most important one that exists.” The same holds true today.

May is Asthma Awareness Month, a good time to remind ourselves that homes and other buildings can encourage good health – or they can make us sick. Mold, dust, harmful chemicals and other irritants are common in many homes. Because most of us spend a great majority of our time indoors, we are continually subjected to these pollutants.

For those with asthma, a home’s indoor environment can have a profound impact. Kids with asthma are especially susceptible to indoor pollutants because their lungs are still developing. In the state of Washington, this chronic lung disease affects nearly 120,000 children under age 18 – some of the highest asthma prevalence in the nation according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Opportunity Council helps families address this problem through our Healthy Homes program. Through this program we assess housing deficiencies that cause poor air quality, share strategies and tools with clients to reduce asthma triggers and complete home improvements. Time and again, we’ve seen this approach improve the lives of children and families.

A few years ago, a woman named Sarah came to the Opportunity Council seeking assistance in paying her high heating bills. During that visit, Sarah learned that our agency’s Healthy Homes program might be able to help reduce asthma triggers for her young daughter, Sophie.

At the time, life was difficult for Sophie. Severe asthma and allergies prevented her from being able to participate in activities with family and peers. When Sophie came home from school, she would often be so exhausted that she would sleep for 16 hours straight. Sarah would have to wake her up so she could take her medications.

An Opportunity Council healthy homes specialist visited Sarah’s home and identified several ways that the indoor home environment was likely exacerbating Sophie’s asthma.

In addition to performing weatherization at Sarah’s home to lower her energy bills, our agency completed a number of healthy homes improvements. We removed old carpet from Sophie’s bedroom and installed hard flooring. We also installed quiet, efficient ventilation systems in both bathrooms where there were no bath fans before.

As part of the weatherization improvements, we helped this family install a ductless heat pump system. That allows them to heat efficiently with electricity rather than use the old wood stove that irritated Sophie’s breathing.

Today, Sophie’s situation has improved greatly. Since the home improvement projects were completed, Sarah reports that Sophie’s health has continued to get better. She isn’t missing as much school and is also able to participate fully and not be held back by her asthma.

This has been an improvement for the whole family. Because Sophie is not sick all the time and needing care, Sarah and her husband are able to work full-time jobs – and Sophie can participate fully in school and other extracurricular activities.

Of course, improving the indoor environment is not the only key to reducing asthma triggers. Outdoor air affects health, too. The Opportunity Council’s Wood Stove Replacement program can improve air quality in both realms.

Old wood stoves and poor burning practices create an air pollution double-whammy: they can degrade indoor air quality as smoke and fine particles escape the stove, and they also pollute air in the neighborhood as thick smoke and tiny, lung-damaging particles dump out of the chimney.

This is a particular concern in the Columbia Valley of eastern Whatcom County. It’s here that topography and an abundance of old wood-burning stoves can combine to result in inversions and very poor air quality.

Those poor air quality days are especially challenging for people with asthma or other respiratory issues. Even if a family takes all the right steps to improve air quality and reduce asthma triggers inside the home, particles in the outside air can trigger an asthma attack.

Through support from the Washington State Department of Ecology and the Northwest Clean Air Agency, the Opportunity Council is able to help qualifying households in the Columbia Valley change out their old wood stove for a new EPA-certified wood stove or another cleaner heating device.

By addressing asthma triggers inside and outside the home, our communities can make a significant improvement in the health of people affected by asthma.