Thunderstorm Asthma will Hurt the Black Community 

Apr 8, 2024 | BM4F Spotlights, Catch the Green Tea, Young, Gifted & Green Blog Series | 0 comments

The frequency and strength of thunderstorms are increasing across America because of climate change. As the world’s global temperature rises we will experience shifts in our weather and wind patterns. Ultimately, having more extreme weather events including thunderstorms because of the rise in greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. “Thunderstorm Asthma” is a consequence of extreme or more intense thunderstorms occurring and impacting lung health.

Asthma is a lung disorder that is caused by the inflammation and swelling of the airways which makes it difficult for people to breathe and causes wheezing. There are 27 million or 1 in 12 people in the United States with Asthma (1,2). As one of the leading chronic diseases in children in the United States, it remains an important disorder that needs to be managed and controlled in order to prevent complications and hospitalizations. Asthma has many triggers that can cause flare ups or exacerbations in adults and children. Pollutants in the air that include pollen, smoke, and mold can worsen Asthma symptoms causing difficulty breathing. Almost 40% of adults and children that have Asthma have at least one episode of an Asthma exacerbation or flare up each year (3). Asthma exacerbations increase a person’s risk of needing hospitalization or higher level of care to help manage and control symptoms.

Thunderstorm Asthma “defined as the sudden onset of asthma symptoms in a large number of people due to a rare interaction between specific types of thunderstorm and high airborne allergen levels” (4). These symptoms and episodes happen because of the increase pollen in air triggering asthma. Studies have shown that thunderstorms cause increased rates of emergency department visits for respiratory problems during the weather event leading to increased hospitalizations and even deaths.
What is concerning about Thunderstorm Asthma is that in environmental justice communities there are high rates of asthma due to air pollution already which increases the incidence of uncontrolled asthma overall- exacerbated during thunderstorms. Environmental justice communities are more prone to asthma diagnoses over multiple generations and other chronic medical problem due to poor environmental exposures, prevention, and mitigation. In communities like Flint, Michigan the rate of asthma is significantly higher than other communities in Michigan so the idea of worsening triggers from air pollution and pollen leaves a lot of opportunity for improvements in air quality before more harm is done. Primary care doctors see the aftermath of exposure to asthma triggers, whether for a short or long period. We see the impact and fear that comes from breathing difficulties and shortness of breath. We know the asthma complications are often due to a lack of oxygen to organs like the brain and we know the deaths that can come for “simple” asthma attacks. Doctors are first line in a patient’s attempt to control asthma symptoms and and not be hospitalized, but we are fighting an uphill battle against climate change. The increased rates and intensity of thunderstorms is very concerning. We do not have the reserve to handle the complications and negative impact of climate change including the consequences of Thunderstorm Asthma. It is critical that we act now to decrease the impact of climate change and protect ourselves and our health.

Asthma is more common in Black people than White people (1). Black people are six times more likely than White people in the United States to visit the emergency department due to asthma (5). Asthma complications or poorly controlled asthma are more common in Black people especially because of the connection with environmental justice communities. These environmental hazards and public health concerns such as asthma are all connected and unfortunately climate change is causing more extreme temperatures which in turn causes an increase in extreme thunderstorms. Minority populations already have increased rates of asthma but also often live in frontline communities that are frequently, the first and, most impacted by climate change concerns, events, and experiences. In the United States, Black people are three times more likely to die from asthma than white people which is likely to increase due to climate change (6).

To help decrease the frequency and intensity of thunderstorms, we have to combat climate change and the increase in the global temperature. Encouraging and demanding stricter and more robust regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is only one part of the fight against climate change. There are endless numbers of medical health problems that are worsened by climate change and many ways quality of life is negatively impacted by climate change. Efforts to decrease greenhouse gases are important to combat climate change and the need to be carbon neutral to save ourselves, our community, and our planet from the devastating effect of climate change. We need the policy changes and initiatives to (7);

  • Switch to clean, non-combustion, renewable energy
  • Switch to zero-emission transportation
  • Reduce pollution including methane emissions
  • Support and improve energy efficiency in our communities, neighborhoods, and states
    Climate change is here and we have to step up and make the changes, policies, and decisions
    that will improve our health outcomes and make our communities a safer and healthier place to
    live and thrive.
  1. National Center for Health Statistics. (2023). 2022 NHIS Adult Summary Health Statistics. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://data.cdc.gov/d/25m4-6qqq.
  2. National Center for Health Statistics. (2023). 2022 NHIS Child Summary Health Statistics. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://data.cdc.gov/d/wxz7-ekz9
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023). 2021 National Health Interview Survey Data. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/nhis/2021/table6-1.htm
  4. Beggs PJ. Thunderstorm Asthma and Climate Change. JAMA. Published online February 19, 2024 doi:10.1001/jama.2023.26649
  5. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2023). Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project 2020 Healthcare Use Data. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/healthcare-use/2020/data.htm
  6. National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System: Underlying Cause of Death 2018-2021. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10-expanded.html
  7. American Lung Association. What to Do to Fight Climate Change. https://www.lung.org/clean-air/climate-change/fight-climate-change

About the Author

Dr. Aisha Harris is a Flint Native, and engineer turned Board Certified Family Medicine Physician. Dr. Harris owns her own practice–Harris Family Health and also serves as Young, Gifted & Green’s Climate & Environmental Health Director. Follow Harris Family Health on Social Media: Instagram | Facebook | YouTube | LinkedIn | TikTok.

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