By Henry Ehrlich
As a word guy, I have an uneasy relationship with the old saw “a picture is worth a thousand words.” However, a good map overlaid with some good data combines the best of both. Thus, I was struck by a map showing where in the world people are most likely to die from air pollution, drawn by NASA from data by Jason West, an earth scientist at the University of North Carolina. Air pollution in this model defined as “fine particulate matter, or PM2.5…” We have covered this kind of pollution repeatedly in the context of black carbon in New York and in Fresno, California. Apparently, the helter-skelter growth of industry in East Asia is creating a massive public health problem. Europe is having trouble, and so is the Northeast United States. By contrast, the Southeastern United States appears to be doing rather well.
However, before you pack your bags and head for Dixie, consider another data point that popped up on the web this week—AAFA’s list of worst cities for fall allergies. Eight of the top 10 are in the South, primarily attributable to the prolific growth of ragweed. High-particulate cities, by contrast, have lower pollen rates because much of the ground is covered with concrete. Asthma rates are similarly concentrated. Six cities, five of them in the South, are on both lists.
A major point in this discussion is that allergies or even asthma are just a sliver of the overall discussion. Pollen counts and carbon particulates can’t be divorced from the larger context. This is what WebMD wrote in the fall of Richmond, Virginia, which topped its asthma list: “The capital of Virginia is also the asthma capital of the nation, climbing back up from No. 23 last year. The city has high levels of year-round pollen and poverty, and too many people don’t have health insurance. But a smoking ban and more asthma doctors could help bring down emergency room visits. Until the city takes more action, it’s the hardest place to live for people trying to get control of their asthma.”
This is what they said about McAllen, Texas, which made both the allergy list and the asthma list: “In this border town just a few miles from the Rio Grande, a big problem is access to treatment. Compared with other cities, McAllen has more people without insurance who need ‘rescue’ medicines for asthma that isn’t well controlled. That’s partly because McAllen is one of the lowest-income cities in the country. High poverty is linked to higher rates of asthma.” McAllen, by the way, is also the Medicare utilization capital of the country. This is what happens when you have too many surgeons and not enough allergists.
Here’s another map* that tells a story about the South, poverty, and health. The darker the colors, the lower the life expectancy.
* GEOGRAPHIC AND RACIAL VARIATION IN PREMATURE MORTALITY IN THE US: ANALYZING THE DISPARITIES
Mark R. Cullen, Clint Cummins, Victor R. Fuchs
Working Paper 17901 http://www.nber.org/papers/w17901
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 March 2012