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Book explores history, causes of allergy and asthma epidemic

University of Wisconsin-Madison

MADISON - Why is it that actions we think will improve a situation more often than not make it worse"

Efforts to create a safe haven from allergens, for example, actually have contributed to the alarming rise of this irritating and even deadly malady, according to Gregg Mitman, William Coleman Professor of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In his new book, "Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes" (Yale University Press, May 2007), Mitman points out that shortsightedness is part, but not all, of the problem.

"We narrowly focus our attention on what promises to be the next magic bullet that holds the promise of a cure-all for every ill," Mitman says.

There has been no magic bullet. America's raging asthma and allergies afflictions continue unchecked from their first stirrings in the 1800s to the present, pollen-infested moment.

In the 19th century, sufferers who could afford to escaped from the hurly-burly of town to fashionable seaside, mountain and suburban retreats. Once so ensconced, they hired the nation's premier landscape architects to create soothing settings thought to be conducive to recovery, or at least relief.

"Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen sincerely believed that natural surrounding provided healthful benefits. Of course, these natural spaces created so attentively a century later would let loose the pollen that bedevil modern allergy sufferers," Mitman says.

To compound the problem, we were not content to modify only outdoor venues.

"The creation of artificial indoor climates through air-conditioning, for example, together with the trend toward more airtight, energy-efficient buildings, increased the risk of exposure to dust mites and mold, second-hand tobacco smoke and other indoor allergens," he says.

Mitman well appreciates this exquisite irony. However, real relief from the allergy/asthma conundrum can come only from a sea change in our approach to the problem, he says.

"Allergies are not things, like bacteria, to be eliminated by drugs from our bodies. An allergy is instead the result of complex interactions that our bodies have with physical, chemical, biological and social factors in the environment," he says.

One of the most disturbing examples has been the urban asthma epidemic that began after World War II and continues unchecked into the present.

"Asthma disproportionately affects people of color living in impoverished inner-city communities. In East Harlem, for example, hospitalization rates for asthma are 10 times the national average. Close to 25 percent of children there suffer from the disease. It is a product of the ecology of injustice that structures urban life - a disproportionate share of bus depots and polluting industries are in inner city neighborhoods. In addition, high levels of indoor exposure to cockroach allergens and pesticides, plus inadequate access to medical care combine to make impoverished urban residents vulnerable to asthma," he says.

Students, a mix of undergrads and grads, have been studying issues of disease ecology this semester in Mitman's class on the history of environment and health.

"We have been exploring the history of disease in shaping our changing perceptions of, and our relationships to, the environment, as well as that impact of environmental change in transforming medical, scientific and popular understanding and experience of illness," he says.

Mitman says that his own experience of illness has influenced his scholarship profoundly.

"As a child I was almost shipped off to the Denver Children's Asthma Research Institute and Hospital, a leading research and treatment facility in the 1960s," he says. "Today, my son and I both take an inhaled steroid every morning. As consumers, we buy into the idea of escape. Drugs let us get on with our lives without regard to the environment. Taking the drug is much easier than moving to the mountains or lakeshore or desert - and much easier than addressing issues of land use, or rethinking building construction or structural inequities in housing or health care."

Nevertheless, confront them Mitman will, next semester in tandem with environmental filmmakers Judith Helfand and Sarirta Siegel, who will be on campus as the UW-Madison Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artists-in-Residence. The three of them will teach the class, Green Screen: Environmental Film in History and Action.

"We will explore how film has shaped past and present interactions between humans and the environment across different cultures ad landscapes. The success of films like 'An Inconvenient Truth,' 'March of the Penguins' and 'The Real Dirt on Farmer John' are recent reminders of the extent to which film can inform the public about and engage them in critical environmental issues that affect human and animal lives around the world," Mitman says.

In the other course, "Nonfiction Storytelling in Pictures, Moving and Still," students will get direct experience in making statements through film.

"One of the highlights will be the production of trailers to be shown at 'Tales from Planet Earth,' an international environmental film festival in Madison Nov. 2-4," he says.

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