Asthma cases on the rise

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The number of Californians suffering from asthma and asthma-like symptoms has spiked in the past three years, with Mother Lode counties seeing the most dramatic increase, a new study shows.

Those suffering from asthma or symptoms of asthma has jumped from 4 million, 12 percent of all Californians, in 2001 to 4.5 million, 13 percent, in 2003, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research report.

The national average of people diagnosed with asthma is 10 percent.

The report also found an additional 3.4 million Californians — 110 percent — suffer from asthma-like symptoms or breathing problems who have not been diagnosed with asthma.

The eight-county region including Tuolumne and Calaveras counties reported a below-average number — 6 percent — of people who have been diagnosed with asthma. But the region ranked highest in the state in the percentage of people who have not been diagnosed with asthma but suffer from asthma-like symptoms or breathing problems — 16 percent.

Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, due to their relatively small populations, are placed in a single group, along with Amador, Inyo, Mariposa, Mono and Alpine counties, so individual county statistics aren't available.

Tuolumne County Health Officer Todd Stolp said that although asthma is on the rise, the UCLA study, compiled from data from the 2003 California Health Interview Survey, should be given a closer look because of the number of counties grouped into the Mother Lode region.

"That's one reason why CHIS data is very hard to dissect," he said.

Also, the study makes no mention if any of the 3.4 million people who reported asthma-like symptoms — defined in the report as "wheezing or whistling in the chest in the past year" — were smokers.

As far as asthma irritants, "smoking is way up there," Stolp said.

Stolp said the medical community has no definitive answer for the rise of asthma cases, but offered a few theories. He said that the methods and technologies employed by physicians in diagnosing asthma have become more sophisticated, resulting in more diagnoses.

He also mentioned a recent study that found children raised in chronically "dirtier" environments — such as farms with lots of dust and allergens — have strengthened immune systems and a lower chance of suffering from asthma than do children reared in "cleaner" environments, such as an apartment or a suburban house.

"America's preoccupation with Lysol and surface cleaners … may have weakened our immune systems," he said.

As rural counties, Tuolumne and Calaveras have a high number of homes that use wood-burning stoves as their primary source of heat, compared to urban counties. Smoke produced from those stoves pollute the air with particulate matter that can deposit itself in lungs and trigger asthmatic symptoms.

Tuolumne County Air Pollution officer Gary Caseri said that, although he didn't know the number of people in the county using wood-burning stoves, it is likely high.

"It's a fairly common activity," he said. "There's a lot of reliance on wood stoves up here, especially with the cost of propane right now."

Caseri believes that, although local counties may have more particulate air pollution, the area's air quality is not a concern.

"The air is cleaner up here so we can handle it," he said. "We're in pretty good shape up here."

More-urban counties, with more automobile traffic, typically have higher levels of non-particulate air pollution, such as ozone and car exhaust fumes, which are also asthmatic irritants. But both Caseri and Stolp said it's hard to tell which is worse.

"To compare one with the other is difficult," Stolp said.

Added Caseri: "It's like comparing apples to oranges."