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Asthma in Children a Growing Concern

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The steady worldwide increase of asthma among children in the past several decades clearly indicates that something is very wrong. The explosion could be partially due to changes in the nature of exposure to various allergens during the fetal and early childhood period.

The steady worldwide increase of asthma among children in the past several decades clearly indicates that something is very wrong. The explosion could be partially due to changes in the nature of exposure to various allergens during the fetal and early childhood period. Chemical additives in foods and pesticides used to control insects and weeds is part of the problem. So is the increased toxic emissions from industry and traffic. Such early exposure could influence the development of the child's immune system, resulting in an increased allergic response and a predisposition to respiratory disease.

Asthma is a condition that affects the airways in the lungs. The bronchial tubes of an asthmatic person are more sensitive when exposed to "triggers": substances or conditions that irritate these airways. The muscles in the walls of the bronchial tubes tighten and spasm and the inner lining of the tubes becomes inflamed, causing swelling, congestion and an excess mucus production.

The tubular inflammation usually brings on the symptoms of wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and/or breathlessness, often so severe that they interfere with normal activities like exercise, sleep and speech. Sometimes, symptoms are life-threatening. They can vary from person to person and change daily, although they're often worse at night.

Children are still growing so their immune systems and detoxification mechanisms aren't fully developed, leaving them more vulnerable to chemical, physical and biological hazards in air, water and soil. Some babies are born with a predisposition to asthma, and many are diagnosed before they reach five years of age.

Colds and chest infections are listed by Health Canada as the most common asthma triggers. They are followed closely by exercise and sports. Tobacco smoke takes third place, followed by air pollution, cold air, pollen, stress, mould or mildew, dampness and humidity.

The Whole Food Factor

Some foods and medications, as well as exposure to certain chemicals and even temperature change can trigger an attack. Reactions to various foods have caused near fatalities in some, so it's important to determine if your child has any food allergies. Common ones include corn, sugar, dairy products, eggs, animal fats and oils, fish and seafood, peanuts, soybeans, nuts and seeds and their extracts, sulphites (preservatives often used in alcoholic beverages and on fruits and vegetables), monosodium glutamate (MSG), wheat or gluten and tartrazine (food dye).

Avoiding contaminated and denatured foods in favour of an unprocessed, organic, whole-food diet is the only sure way to eliminate food-related allergies. Flavour enhancers like tartrazine are often not required to be listed as ingredients, so mandatory labelling would reduce the risk of consuming them unknowingly. They currently show up in unexpected places, like commercial desserts. Sugar replacements (aspartame) should also be avoided.

There are other things parents can do to help control asthma. It's best to breastfeed babies, as processed baby foods may contain unlisted additives. Avoid smoking when pregnant or in the presence of small children. Keep your home clean and well ventilated to decrease the exposure of young children to dust mites, insects, moulds, animal hairs and other irritants.

Chemical Triggers

Outside the home, asthmatics have little control over the air they breathe and the toxins they're exposed to. According to Worldwatch, chemical companies are developing about three new chemicals every day. More than 150 million kilograms of toxic chemicals are currently released by manufacturing facilities into the Canadian environment each year. Their effects on asthmatics are usually not considered.

Consider what's happening on Prince Edward Island, where the rate of childhood asthma is one of the highest in the country. It was recently discovered that the island's fish were being killed by the thousands. The blame was placed on the spraying of five pesticides on a 100,000-acre potato crop. Cloudy red water flowed down the Westmoreland River when a severe thunderstorm caused pesticide run-off from nearby farm fields. More than an estimated 3,000 river-fish died, along with all other aquatic life.

In the wake of this incident, alarmed parents are calling for a ban on the five pesticides used to spray because they feel that these pesticides acted as triggers for childhood asthma. New provincial laws effective next year in PEI will prevent farmers from working land close to rivers. The province also plans to ask the federal government for tighter controls on pesticide use and for more research into less toxic chemicals and organic alternatives.

Chemical Residues in Food

A recent report by the Consumers Union of the United States entitled "Do You Know What You're Eating?" discusses the toxicity of North American produce. According to this document, peaches, apples, grapes, pears, green beans, winter squash (including pumpkin) and spinach have a high toxicity index, a measure of the frequency of pesticide detection, levels of residues and the relative toxicity of the residues detected.

Because children are physically small, the amount of chemical residues necessary for them to have an adverse reaction is substantially less than for adults. While an attempt has been made in North America to reduce excessive exposure among children, it's still wise to take precautions. Don't reduce the volume of fruits and vegetables you serve they offer substantial health benefits for children. Do seek out organic produce and peel or wash non-organic produce to reduce pesticide residue exposure.

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