News & Features » News and Features

Richmond Is Now An Asthma Capital and Doctors Say Schools Are Part of the Problem


Richmond may have just played host to a thousand pairs of pro-cyclist lungs, but it remains the asthma capital of America, according to several nonprofit research groups. The biggest offenders are pollution, particulates and poverty, and they all weigh heavily on the aging infrastructure of Richmond area schools.

Local doctors and allergists say schools could improve the situation by integrating asthma awareness into their curricula. But the best education and medicine in the world won’t solve Richmond’s asthma problem, until its poverty rate is addressed and its schools are cleaned up. Even a new children’s hospital won’t do it, says Dr. Barry Feinstein of Advanced Allergy and Asthma of Virginia.

“Beyond providing specialized health care, we need to update school infrastructure,” Feinstein says. “They’re doing just enough to keep the lights on, and hazardous health conditions are compounded year after year.”

Feinstein refers to a moldy ceiling tile that fell on a student’s head at Fairfield Court Elementary School last year. “You can go in and replace a ceiling tile to appease parents,” he says, “but that’s just cosmetics.”

Children can have genetic tendencies toward asthma, or they can develop it through environmental exposure. Nearly 152,000 children in Virginia suffer from the condition, according to the state’s Department of Health.

Katherine Busser, chief executive of the Virginia Children’s Hospital Alliance, says respiratory issues are the highest treated issue in Richmond pediatric care.

But conditions in schools don’t only affect children. William Hark of Richmond Allergy & Asthma Specialists says he’s seen a spike in visits from teachers: “They’re usually inside the schools for longer hours, including during the summer.”

Mold isn’t the only thing triggering asthma in local schools, doctors say. Decrepit heating and air conditioning systems are notorious culprits, too. Armstrong High School canceled classes Sept. 29 because of its weakened air-conditioning system.

Allergy Partners of Richmond recently released a Facebook advisory to remind schools that flipping to heat during cool autumn weather will release a storm of dust mites that likely have accumulated in heating ducts.

Well-ventilated spaces are like a balm to asthmatics, says Stuart Tousman, president of the Virginia Asthma Coalition. His group is urging local schools to develop asthma action plans, he says: “That means having proper medication on hand, providing a clean environment and implementing some kind of in-school educational component.”

In a 2000 study, the Joint Commission on Health Care told Gov. Jim Gilmore and the Virginia General Assembly that the level of asthma preparedness in state schools was inadequate. Asthma attacks were becoming a chief cause for school absences and the commission recommended developing an action plan.
Yet in 2008, the Richmond Public Schools discontinued an in-school asthma awareness program created by Bon Secours and the Medical College of Virginia, called CARMA — Controlling Asthma in the Richmond Metro Area.

Principals had decided to devote more time to standardized test preparation, says Lu Grimes, a registered nurse with the program. Now she works one-on-one with families, particularly those in financial need.

“There’s a double whammy when poverty’s involved,” Grimes says — “poor air quality at home and then at school.”

Grimes says schools deal with more than particulates such as mold, dust mites, pollen, even cockroach droppings. She notes a synergy between man-made pollution and poverty, which easily can be seen at schools such as Carver Elementary. Its playground sits on Interstate 95, between Stratton Metals and River City Recycling.

The problem extends into east Chesterfield County, closely following the interstate and Jefferson Davis Highway. This corridor has the county’s 10 poorest schools, which are in structural decline, like Carver. These ZIP codes also feature the highest concentration of air pollution in the metro area, according to a Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club report released in July.

Children in this area are subjected to asthma triggers from power plants, such as ammonia, hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid, the report says.

Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club chapter in Richmond, says kids here can’t fully enjoy outdoor activities. Last year his chapter criticized the General Assembly for proposing legislation that would restrict how elementary schools taught climate change.

Leah Miller, mid-Atlantic communications director for the American Lung Association, points to different conclusions in a study that her organization released in April. After receiving F’s in last year’s report, it says Richmond’s air quality is improving. Miller proposes that schools teach an interactive course called Open Airways, which shows kids how to be aware of asthma triggers.

“I do think we should create lessons that apply to kids’ personal lives,” says Kristen Larson, a 4th District School Board member. Larson says kids benefited from hands-on learning during the bike race, an experience which easily could be applied to other subjects, such as asthma.