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Lung Diseases Exceed Averages

Spokane’s asthma rate is higher than the national average, and a likely cause is the area’s dirty air, says an Eastern Washington University researcher.

Spokane’s emphysema and chronic bronchitis cases also exceed national averages, says Dr. Roe Ann Roberts, a professor and health researcher.

Roberts has done extensive research into Spokane health records. Her study results are still preliminary, but the data point to a Spokane health problem that hasn’t been fully explored.

Spokane has 12,363 asthmatic children - 5,299 more than would be expected based on U.S. averages, according to her research.

Spokane also has 30,267 asthmatic adults - far more than the 14,817 that would be expected based on the city’s population.

The city’s overall lung disease rates, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, also are higher than national averages.

At the same time, the percentage of smokers - roughly 25 percent of adults - is about the same as the national average, Roberts said.

If Spokane’s cigarette smoking rate were higher than the national average, that would be the likely cause of much of the increased lung disease in adults.

But there’s a growing body of scientific evidence pointing to tiny airborne pollutants as a major health threat - including this week’s report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

More research needs to be done on Spokane’s particulate problem and how it’s affecting health, says Roberts, who came to EWU from the University of Hawaii in 1992.

She has published many academic papers on health issues, including AIDS treatment and health care service delivery. She recently used her doctorate training in epidemiology to look closely at Spokane’s respiratory disease rates.

She examined the health histories of preschoolers enrolled in Head Start classes. She combed Spokane County health records and has used local and national computer databases for her research. She worked with a local pharmacist to track emergency use of drugs by asthmatics on weekends.

Roberts also has been active in Save Our Summers, a local clean air group that’s pushing for an end to the annual burning of Kentucky bluegrass fields.

“I got intrigued when people said particulates aren’t harmful. The evidence shows they are,” she said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Asthma rates