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Editorial: Take A Deep Breath

As technology advances it has an impact on many facets of human existence. For example, people now live a lot longer than they did, at least in the 'advanced' capitalist states where access to reasonable levels of medical care is highest. But there are some anomalies, individual trends which seem to buck the prevailing tendency. In healthcare, one of these has been the tremendous rise in cases of asthma over the last century or so.

According to the Independent on Sunday (17 February) the Westminster Hospital in London admitted its first asthmatic child in 1910, whereas today one in seven children have asthma in Britain and over five million people in the UK are currently undergoing treatment for the condition. It kills at least 1,500 people in the UK every year and costs the NHS £850 million on an annual basis.

This situation is far from unique to Britain. The story is similar in other countries, and Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Singapore fare even worse than Britain. This had led to a concerted effort from medical researchers to try and determine the cause of this tremendous rise in the number of cases.

Several theories have been put forward, some of them reinforcing one another. The most common has linked asthma with modern carpeted homes, replete with central heating. This is because this environment is an ideal breeding ground for dust mites, the droppings from which cause allergic reaction (including asthma and rhinitis) in a large proportion of the population. However, a recent study by researchers at the University of Southern California has discovered another culprit, the influence of which had long been suggested but never proven – pollution from cars.

The study compared asthma rates with pollution levels, taking into account exposure amongst children to polluted air. It found that the children most likely to develop asthmatic symptoms were those living in areas of high pollution who played sport at least three times a week (children engaged in physical activity of this type draw air into the lungs typically at a rate seventeen times the usual rate). The chief culprit is low-lying ozone, which is a poisonous form of oxygen formed when sunlight interacts with pollutants created by some factories and, crucially, the internal combustion engine. The study showed that rhesus monkeys exposed to the same levels of pollutants as Los Angeles schoolchildren developed asthmatic symptoms at a similar rate.

Those most likely to develop asthma will typically live in centrally heated and fully carpeted houses, typically with a cat or dog, have parents who smoke (and whose mother smoked during pregnancy) and crucially, will be subject to ozone pollution. Indeed, the study found that pollution was a greater cause of asthma than any of the other contributory factors.

A problem such as this is serious but it will not be reversed overnight as the factors that have gone to bring it about are fundamental to modern processes of production and distribution as they have been built up by industrial capitalism. However, the market economy has little if any incentive to do anything about this situation at all. Some of the most powerful interests in global capitalism are the oil and petroleum companies together with the car manufacturers. As yet (and probably for the foreseeable future) there is not a lot of profit to be made by the production of hydrogen cars or cars that run on electricity. Sales of internal combustion engine vehicles continue to rise across the globe and as long as that continues the owners and controllers of the means of transportation will be happy. So the internal combustion engine will stay, even if it does go a fair way towards disabling the lives of a significant and increasing proportion of the population.

Of course, a sane society would attempt to tackle the problem now, freed from the constraints of profit and the domination of vested interests. But as we live in a far from sane society it is patently not going to happen. Unfortunately, asthma is here to stay for now. And equally as unfortunately, the alternatives to its principal cause will remain as side shows on Tomorrow's World, as apparently bizarre and utopian as the notion that we could organise our affairs without profits and money.