Running on fumes

Glowing like a nightlight in my reflective vest, I barreled down the hill as a Parkview school bus chugged past. On the last leg of a four-mile pre-dawn run, my lungs filled with the noxious fumes the bus belched as it crawled up toward the intersection.

Diesel fumes
Who wouldn't love a face full of this stuff to help get them going on a morning run?

In my 18 years as a runner, this scene has played out roughly the same so many times I can’t even count. What made this notable was that it was my first diesel fume blast of the season.

I have no experience with inhalants or hallucinogenic drugs, so I can’t really compare the sensation you get when your muscles, starved for oxygen are instead fed a helping of
carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and aldehydes
. Let’s just say it feels as if all of your energy seeps out like air escaping from a leaky balloon.

You don’t need a code orange smog alert from the Clean Air Campaign to know this really isn’t good for you. Our awareness is probably greater here in Atlanta because of the annual emissions tests our cars have to pass before we can renew our tags, but I think in general people who walk or run for exercise are the most sensitive to the contents of our air.

I remember watching the marathon during the Beijing Summer Olympic games as the athletes choked through smog so thick it was visible on television.

“That can’t be good,” I thought.

I’ve already written about the prevalence of asthma inhaler use I’ve noticed among kids in the Atlanta area, and I’ve used this space to tell how I relive my grandmother’s cooking when I smell bacon cooking. Diesel fumes cause a similarly evocative experience. While I’m coughing and gagging and losing precious seconds on my split times, I’m simultaneously transported back to the fall of 1991 when I interned in Washington, D.C.

You can insert your own political commentary about how the smell of pollution makes me think of our nation’s capital, but during that fall, I didn’t have a car. I really didn’t need one because the Metro took me everywhere I needed to go. But to get to the Metro, I walked. And as I trod upon the sidewalks around the Capitol, dodging the homeless and avoiding the picketers, I was frequently treated to a puff of diesel fumes from the ubiquitous transit buses.

The Capitol
Maybe as much air pollution inside this building as outside.

Maybe it’s the combination of the fall air with the smell that makes me think of that semester I spent in D.C., but once again, last Thursday as another school bus rumbled past me, I thought about that time on Constitution Avenue with my four roommates as I learned the way journalism works or doesn’t work inside the Beltway.

I know buses are a necessary evil. I know clean air should be a right not a luxury. I know alternative fuels come with their own set of problems. But, I look forward to the crisp, fall morning when a jog doesn’t have to result in a face full of toxic fumes.

Guess I’ll just have to get up earlier.

Have inhaler, will travel

I recently spent a week chaperoning kids from my church at camp. While they are all great, active, healthy kids, what struck me about the experience was that 5 out of 6 had rescue inhalers or allergy medications with them, including my oldest son, Barron.

No breathing issues this week at camp despite lots of activity.

For the four-hour bus ride north, they had their iPods and Nintendo DS game systems, but after going over the medical checklist and realizing that we had a lot of potential breathing issues, I was a little nervous.  I needed to make sure they had their rescue inhalers, too.

As it turned out, we didn’t have any problems, and I only know of one incident where an inhaler had to be used.

When did childhood asthma become so prevalent? When did a rescue inhaler become so commonplace?

Naturally, the Centers for Disease Control had answers. According to a 2006 report on the
state of childhood asthma in the United States
, the turning point occurred in the 1980s. From 1980 to 1996, the prevalence of asthma in children ages 0 to 17 years more than doubled, jumping from 3.6 percent of the population to 7.5 percent. It is now hovering around 9 percent or 6.5 million children.

When I was a kid, having to carry an asthma inhaler was a reliable predictor of a child’s athleticism. Now, so many kids have it that a rescue inhaler doesn’t relegate you to the bench. Some of the most active and best athletes retreat to the stands to take a puff when they get short of breath.

The stereotype of the bookish, withdrawn child in glasses sitting on the sidelines clutching their inhaler just doesn’t hold up anymore.

Getting kids out of smoggy Atlanta played a big part in helping kids breath easier this week.

I am convinced that allergies and air quality have played a huge role in our own experience with the disease.  In fact, our son was diagnosed with asthma just months after moving to metro Atlanta, and his seems to be both allergy and exercise-induced.  I found it interesting that even with temperatures in the mid-90s all week and the non-stop exercise
that is inevitable in the camp environment, the Cumberland Plateau provided cleaner air than metro Atlanta and produced no asthma outbreaks.

As our understanding of asthma continues to improve you may see even more kids carrying inhalers. The day is coming when a sideline shot of an athlete celebrating a big play will inevitably include a puff on a rescue inhaler.

In the meantime, just be aware that more and more kids are packing inhalers, and breathing isn’t something we can take for granted anymore.