Today, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse convened an official field briefing of the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee in Providence to hear testimony about asthma prevention. The briefing brought together Rhode Islanders who are living with asthma, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officials, environmental experts, and state leaders working on prevention and treatment programs.
The briefing, which was held at the Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, showcased the innovative work being done to help Rhode Island children with asthma, and highlighted the importance of Clean Air Act enforcement and federal funding to allow such programs to succeed.
In his opening statement, Whitehouse described his goals for the briefing: "First, I'd like to showcase the great and often innovative work being done in Rhode Island to help patients control their asthma, so families can learn about these resources. Second, I'd like to highlight what the federal government is doing to help Rhode Island fight asthma. Third, I'd like to hear from the state and federal partners present about how to work together more effectively going forward."
Asthma is the number one chronic childhood disease, the leading reason for school absenteeism, and tops the list of causes for child hospitalizations and emergency room visits, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Here in Rhode Island, more than one in ten people suffer from this disease. While the cause of asthma is still largely unknown, asthma attacks can be triggered by a number of environmental factors, including mold, dust, cigarette smoke, and outdoor air pollution.
Witnesses testifying this morning included Nick Friend, a 13-year-old Rhode Islander living with asthma. During his remarks, Friend spoke about the negative effect of Rhode Island's periodic "Ozone Alert Days," which are triggered by smog and other forms of air pollution. "On these days, I can't run around outside. I may not even be able to spend ANY time outside," said Friend. "I need to be in air conditioning for the most part on these days. I get frustrated when this changes my plans for the day."
Also testifying today was Janet Coit, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, who added: "Elevated levels of ozone and particulates can affect the health of anyone who is active outdoors and is a particular problem for children and people with asthma and other respiratory and cardiac diseases." She also highlighted a number of state initiatives to improve air quality, but concluded that " Rhode Island cannot improve its air quality on its own and continues to need strong federal programs to reduce air pollution that is transported into Rhode Island from upwind states."
To address this problem, EPA recently finalized the Cross State Air Pollution Rule, which will reduce the upwind pollution that blows into Rhode Island from sources in the Midwest and contributes to our high rates of asthma. Whitehouse has been a strong supporter of the new rule.
The other witnesses at the briefing were Gina McCarthy, EPA Assistant Administrator for Air; Dr. Christopher Portier, Director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; Dr. Michael Fine, Director of the RI Department of Health; June Tourangeau, a pediatric registered nurse who provides care for asthmatic children at St. Joseph Health Center; and Linda Mendonca, school nurse at Jenks Junior High, President of the RI Certified School Nurse Teachers Association, and Board Member of the RI American Lung Association.
Other groups in Rhode Island working hard on prevention and treatment of asthma include EPA Region 1, under the leadership of Curt Spaulding, the Green and Healthy Housing Initiative, the RI Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, and medical professionals from Hasbro Children's Hospital, St. Joseph's Health Services, Kent Hospital, and the Providence VA Hospital.
"It is clear that asthma is a pervasive, complex disease. We need a multi-faceted approach to asthma, to effectively control it and help patients lead healthy, productive lives," Whitehouse concluded.