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Cleaner air requires Olympic effort

Study says reduced traffic in 1996 helped kids breathe easier

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The first thing a child heading for a full-blown asthma attack feels is a slight tickle in the back of her throat. It will be so slight that, since she's playing outside on a summer's day, she may not even notice it.

But as the bronchial tubes in her lungs constrict and close, she'll feel a burning in her chest. Then the wheezing starts. Her chest will tighten, as if her rib cage is being squeezed by a boa constrictor.

To compensate for the closed tubes in her lungs, she'll breath faster and faster until she's gasping for breath.

Six percent of Americans suffer from asthma. In Georgia, it's 11 percent.

And in the metro area, ozone levels are among the highest in the country. Scientists and doctors have repeatedly linked air pollution with respiratory problems in recent years.

A new study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association goes one further. It suggests how many childhood asthma attacks could be prevented if Atlanta's traffic problems disappeared.

A five-member team -- consisting of medical doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and local asthma specialists -- studied air quality and asthma attacks in the four weeks before the 1996 Olympics, the 17 days during the games and the four weeks after.

During the games, the city brought in 1,000 extra buses for park-and-ride use. Organizers also emphasized public transit and telecommuting. The result? Miraculously light traffic -- by Atlanta standards anyway. And fewer cars meant less pollution; studies show that ground level ozone concentrations dropped 28 percent.

The impact was seen in the city's emergency rooms. During the Olympics, the daily average of asthma hospitalizations and emergencies citywide dropped 42 percent for Medicaid patients age 1 to 16, compared to the four weeks before and after the Games. For HMO enrollees in the same age group, the daily average dropped 44 percent.

The drop in asthma attacks, the study concludes, is no coincidence. "The alternative transportation plan in Atlanta during the Olympic Games reduced ozone and other air pollutants and was associated with a significant, albeit temporary, decrease in the burden of asthma among Atlanta's children."

The study's lead author, Dr. Michael Friedman, an epidemiologist and physician with the CDC, says, "Our study supports the idea that efforts to improve our traffic congestion problems in cities like Atlanta would have an impact on the overall asthma among our children.

"For that reason alone, the study should be discussed at great length. I hope someone will use the results to base opinions on issues about what Atlanta should do."

Friedman stopped short of recommending a course of action for regional leaders to take. "My role is to study science. Beyond that, it's not up to me to stir up the powers that be so they'll use this information," he says.

But co-author Dr. LeRoy Graham, a pediatric asthma specialist in Atlanta, didn't hesitate to condemn Atlanta's sprawl and dirty air.

"Atlanta's economy thrives on development, and that could be fine and a good thing. But development without planning, without changes in infrastructure, without some type of reasonable land use plan, is folly," says Graham, chairman of the American Lung Association's Pediatric Asthma Committee.

Graham has been a child asthma specialist for 10 years. Every summer he sees firsthand the ill effects Atlanta's traffic problems have on children, and he worries regional and state leaders aren't doing enough. He's also fed up with people who fight to defend the sprawl way of life.

"The governor has commissioned this regional transportation plan, but its deadline stretches too far into the next decade. GRTA [the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority] does give me hope. It's well conceived, but again, the timetable to solve many of their problems is long and unfortunately tempered by politics and the money that developers represent," he says.

"I'm really kind of waiting to see this get into the press and see people like [Atlanta Journal editorial page editor Jim] Wooten attack this because this has a human cost. It's not science behind locked doors. It's about children who have increased acute asthma events because of transportation congestion," Graham says. "And now we know that can be avoided, it's clearly remediable and we can do something about it."

The shame, he says, is that Atlanta leaders only got their act together when the world's spotlight was pointed at them, when 1 million visitors were in town for those 17 days. And when they left, clean air left with them.

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