By Andy Metzger

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

STATE HOUSE -- Buoyed by fresh data that indicates its success, officials involved in a Boston program attacking asthma triggers in the home are hoping it will spread elsewhere, and have found common cause with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, who hopes such programs can become a more entrenched part of society.

By identifying dust and toxins within a home and empowering people to work with landlords to make healthier living spaces, the Boston Asthma Home Visit Collaborative has decreased asthma triggers and reduced emergency room visits, according to program administrators.

Healthy Homes Director Margaret Reid, who's organization is part of the collaborative, said 26 percent of participants had been hospitalized in the six months prior to joining the program, but that figure dropped to 2 percent in the six months after their last home visit.

"I didn't realize the own danger I was putting my children in," said Robenia Chambers, a program participant. She said, "The cleaning supplies I was using were awful, and I did not know."

Chambers said that her debilitating asthma had let up after she moved into a new home, instituted a new cleaning regimen, and took her children to the park for fresh air and exercise.


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"Who would have thought that I could walk around the block without panting," said Chambers, who said she now takes Zumba classes and has lost weight.

Saying one out of every 10 children suffers from asthma and the rate is almost double that in African American and Hispanic communities, McCarthy said she hopes asthma prevention programs are started, analyzed and "hopefully get spread" around the country.

"I think a lot of places are looking at how they can better get into the community to prevent asthma. We know that the costs of asthma are high for the families and for the health care that is necessary, and so our goal is to work together," McCarthy told reporters after a meeting at Tufts Medical Center. "EPA can have an impact on those environmental triggers that cause asthma attacks - ozone, the hot weather that's changing the climate is going to exacerbate that problem."

McCarthy said she hoped programs like the one in Boston would move on from being pilot programs, and another EPA official mused about what role health insurers might play.

"I'm ambitious to not fund 100,000 pilots before people say, OK enough. This is a system, not the pilot," said McCarthy.

"I haven't really peeled this onion yet, but I want to hear about how you connect with insurers," said EPA New England Administrator Curtis Spaulding.

Scientists don't know the causes of asthma, a disease that is more prevalent in children than adults, or how to cure it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists a range of substances that can trigger an asthma attack, such as air pollution, mold and dust mites. According to a CDC fact sheet, 3,388 people died from asthma in 2009, which causes tightness of the chest, wheezing and trouble breathing.

May Chin, the program director of an asthma program at Tufts, said it started about six or seven years ago after clinicians saw children making repeated hospital visits with asthma symptoms. Health workers can point out something as simple as an unclean air conditioner filter and work with tenants who are "reluctant" to go to building management out of fear of eviction, Chin said.

Nathalie Bazil, a Boston Public Health Commission program coordinator, said amid concerns like paying the electricity bills and keeping food on the table, asthma can be "the last thing on people's minds," but the Boston program has been popular and she is receiving calls about it from outside of Boston.

The asthma problem is especially acute in Boston, according to Boston Health Commissioner Barbara Ferrer. 

"Asthma rates in Boston are among the highest in the entire country," said Ferrer, who said African American children in Boston under the age of 5 are five times more likely to have asthma than white children in that age range.