February 06, 2013

The Great, Deadly Outdoors

I have racked my brain to recall what conditions changed for Matisse between 2003 and 2005 when symptoms of chronic bronchitis made their debut - a chronic cough. Was it due to any environmental factor within my control?

We lived in the Allergy Capital of the World. Stuart stopped smoking a pipe and began smoking cigarettes. We moved to a home adjacent to a golf course where he was more susceptible to allergens in the air and under foot - indoor carpeting and chemical lawn care where he walked. My dog became "middle aged."

Although none is inconsequential when taken alone, no one of these could trigger chronic inflammation in his respiratory system. Altogether, they were catastrophic.

Let's look at it.

Airborne allergens. 

While many places in the United States claim the title of "allergy capital" because people in the area suffer significant symptoms, Austin has first dibs. It has three distinct pollen seasons.

In Autumn, ragweed and other weeds release pollen from mid August to early November. This season is much longer than in other parts of the country. In Spring, oak and other trees like ash, elm and pecan pollinate from February to early June. Grasses pollinate from March through September. The hot, dry, summer weather often kills off much of the grass, so some years there is very little pollen in July and early August.

In Winter, mountain cedar pollen season extends from December to February. This is unique to Central Texas. Cedar pollen counts in Central Texas are the highest pollen counts of any plant anywhere in the world. Cedar allergy, referred to as "cedar fever," can be intense and debilitating.

This combination makes it one of the top five most allergic places on Earth.


Second-hand Smoke

Smoking (even for a brief time) and being around tobacco smoke, chemical fumes and other air pollutants for long periods of time increases the risk for developing chronic bronchitis.

Everyday Health discusses the Link Between Smoking and Chronic Bronchitis:

People who live with smokers face many health problems from exposure to secondhand smoke. They have a higher risk of lung infections and asthma, and secondhand smoke increases their risk of allergy complications, bronchitis, and sinusitis.

A person with healthy lungs can tolerate a certain amount of secondhand smoke, but if exposure continues for a long time, it damages the lungs in the same way that smoking can. And people with a genetic susceptibility to chronic bronchitis are at higher risk from the dangers of secondhand smoke.

For children, the damage of secondhand smoke occurs more quickly.
I quit smoking in 1985 and loathe the habit. But you can't enforce your virtues at the cost of other people's vices no matter how well intentioned you are.

To his credit, Stuart never smoked inside; he smoked outdoors while taking Matisse for walks. Neither of us gave the effect of second-hand smoke on our dog a second thought.

Hindsight being 20-20, it had to be a factor.
Toxic Fairways

We also never gave a second thought to the potential damage of living in a home on the eighth fairway of a golf course.

Fresh air. A vast carpet of well-manicured lawn. Ample space for long, rambling walks. What could go wrong? 

Sahar Ghaffari, contributing writer to LuxEco Living, recounts the ways Golf Courses Pollute with Pesticides:
 So what’s the big deal with pesticides? Most golf courses employ pesticides in large quantities on their greens and fairways (in repeated treatments) in order to prevent pest problems. Rather than modifying their treatments to tackle specific problems, courses spray a cocktail of pesticides on their lawns; however this can lead to a dependency on the pesticides, in turn, necessitating more pesticides and a higher health risk to the public. In fact, one course in Long Island, New York was found to use four to seven times the average amount of pesticides used in agriculture, on a pound per acre basis.
These pesticides are not only a health danger to workers of golf courses or golfers, but to any nearby areas as well. Runoff and airborne drift carry the pesticides to close by neighborhoods and water sources and “pose health risks, both acute and chronic, from common cold like symptoms, nausea, dizziness, headaches, rashes, to birth defects, learning disabilities, infertility, leukemia, various cancers including brain cancer, breast cancer, [and] non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma”, says Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides. “Asthma rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed, and there are studies linking asthma to pesticides that are widely used on golf courses."

Of the 30 most commonly used lawn-care pesticides, 19 are linked to cancer in humans, 15 are known for neurological toxicity and 27 are sensitizer/irritants, i.e., they exacerbate allergic reactions in individuals with weakened immune systems.

Who knew?

The Sick House

While it's easy to point fingers at outdoor allergens such as dust, pollen and smoke as the primary cause of allergies, The Sick House Center tells us that indoor pollutants actually present a greater problem to long-term allergy sufferers.

For one thing, we spend more time indoors than out. For another, indoor pollutants are actually smaller than their outdoor counterparts. Indoor pollutants can actually split up and become smaller particles which are more likely to be breathed deeply into the lung and nasal cavities. In effect, the smaller the particle, the greater likelihood of that particle causing an allergic reaction.

In fact, small sub-micron particles ranging from household dust to dust-mite feces are a leading cause of allergies in toddlers whose weight and susceptibility is roughly equal to that of a mid-sized dog like Matisse.

Mold is another culprit; but not the mold you see. Instead, sub-micron mold spores invisible to the naked eye are the primary cause of chronic allergy in hypersensitive or allergy-prone individuals - adult, child, canine or feline.

Mold particles are everywhere in the outdoor and indoor environment. It is the combination of mold particle size to the quantity found in a cubic foot of indoor air which most aggravates allergies. Each cubic foot of indoor air in a home or building can contain millions of particles. These indoor particles are commonly measured in microns, a metric unit of measure. There are 25,400 microns in one inch. Approximately 98-99 percent of all particles by count of indoor air are in the sub-micron size range of 10 microns or less in size. These sub-micron particles are known as “respirable” and are invisible to the naked eye. The average adult may breathe in as much as 16,000 quarts of air whereas children under the age of 12 can breathe in as much as 10,000 quarts. Each quart of air breathed in contains some 70,000 visible and invisible particles. That’s potentially a billion particles per day taken in by our respiratory system.

Was Lakeway Drive a "sick house?"

Three years after we moved in, I had all the carpets steamed and duct-work cleaned. For a short time, all of Stuart's sneezing and sniffling - as well as my dog's coughing - stopped.

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