May 1, 2008 Industrial Hygienists created a device that monitors the air around a person who frequently suffers from asthma attacks. The device is comprised of a sensor system that measures airborne concentrations of several possible irritants, on-board memory to store the data, and a peak flow meter to measure lung function.
Every year, asthma kills five-thousand people in the United States. Millions more suffer with the disease every day. Now, there's increasing research that environment plays a key role in causing asthma attacks, but how do you know what triggers your asthma? Researchers think they may have the answer.
Environmental chemist Charlene Bayer, Ph.D., was inspired by her daughter, who has asthma. "We really don't know what the particular triggers are and they may not be the same for every person," Dr. Bayer, principal research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta, told Ivanhoe.
Dr. Bayer's research team developed a sensor box. Small enough to carry in the pocket of a lightweight vest, it's designed to continuously monitor the air around people prone to asthma attacks. While inside a chamber, the system measures for seven different environmental stimuli -- all potential asthma triggers. Combined with an electronic peak flow meter, the system allows researchers to monitor what's in the air around a person and how their lungs may be reacting to it. If she has an asthma attack, they can see what might have contributed to it. "What we're looking at is a way to measure -- continuously measure -- exposure of people so that we can start linking exposure with asthma exacerbations," Dr. Bayer explained. The box is so sensitive it could pick up the formaldehyde and organic compounds in a magic marker. Every change is a clue. "If we can get to the point where can say this compound or this series of compounds are the triggers for these people, we may be able to start understanding what really exacerbates asthma -- what we really need to control," Dr. Bayer said.
Answers that could one day provide help for the more than 20 million Americans with asthma. Researchers say the sensor system could be commercially available in as little as a year to help asthmatics monitor the air around them and help their doctors find better ways to treat them.
ASTHMA OR ALLERGIES? Asthma is a chronic disease affecting the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs. The inside walls of the airways become inflamed (swollen) and narrower so less air can flow through the lung tissues. This in turn causes wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, and trouble breathing. Asthma is linked to allergies, although not everyone with asthma has allergies. People with allergies tend to react more strongly to the presence of allergens such as animal dander, dust mites, pollen or mold, as well as cigarette smoke and air pollution.
SMOG MAKES BREATHING DIFFICULT: Pollution is one possible asthma trigger. Smog can make breathing difficult and can make human beings more susceptible to cardio-respiratory diseases. People already suffering from heart or lung disease are particularly affected. The two main ingredients in smog that affect human health are ground-level ozone and fine airborne particles.
WHAT IS SMOG? Smog is a mixture of air pollutants that form smoke and fog in the air. It is generally formed when ground level ozone, fine particles and other chemicals react on hot days. Ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, but at ground-level ozone is a highly irritating gas. It forms when two primary pollutants -- nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds -- react in sunlight and stagnant air.
Most nitrogen oxides come from burning fossil fuels, while VOCs are gases that contain carbon, usually emitted by gasoline fumes and solvents, such as those found in some paints. Airborne particles, sometimes called aerosols, are microscopic particles of pollutants that can remain suspended in the air for a considerable length of time. Primary particles include windblown dust and soil, sea spray, pollen, and plant spores.
The American Industrial Hygiene Association contributed to the information contained in the video portion of this report.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.