On Whether Asthma Is Caused By Dirty Air: Myth or Not Myth? (And If So, Does It Need To Be Stopped?)


In which The Gay Recluse explores mythology.

In response to our post on the nasty black smoke seen snaking around the rooftops of Washington Heights, reader David writes:

FYI – asthma is caused more by a bad diet than by the air we breathe.
Love your site, but the “asthma is caused by dirty air” myth should be stopped.

Is this true? An exhaustive search of the literature (by which we mean a ten-second google search of “asthma” and “causes”) reveals this from the Mayo Clinic:


Asthma is probably due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors. You’re more likely to develop asthma if it runs in your family and if you’re sensitive to environmental allergens or irritants. Early, frequent infections and chronic exposure to secondhand smoke or certain allergens may increase your chances of developing asthma.

Exposure to various allergens and irritants may trigger your asthma symptoms. The following are common things that trigger asthma symptoms:

  • Allergens, such as pollen, animal dander or mold
  • Cockroaches and dust mites
  • Air pollutants and irritants
  • Nasty smoke and dirty air from apartment-building boilers and incinerators*
  • Strong odors or scented products or chemicals
  • Respiratory infections, including the common cold
  • Physical exertion, including exercise
  • Strong emotions and stress
  • Cold air
  • Certain medications, including beta blockers, aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Sulfites, preservatives added to some perishable foods
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition in which stomach acids back up into your esophagus. GERD may trigger an asthma attack or make an attack worse.
  • Sinusitis

*actually, this just said “smoke,” which we assume refers to the cigarette variety

Seriously, in our experience — which is primarily through the lens of taking care of our cat, admittedly different, but still — it’s often difficult to pinpoint the exact causes of asthma symptoms in a particular person. Though we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that diet is in fact more important than dirty air, common sense seems to dictate that smoke and pollutants cannot be good for our lungs (even if it doesn’t cause asthma per se) and should be curtailed as much as possible. Asthma experts and sufferers — or even reader David — any additional insight?

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2 Responses to “On Whether Asthma Is Caused By Dirty Air: Myth or Not Myth? (And If So, Does It Need To Be Stopped?)”

  1. I work in an inner city eye clinic. Lots of poor black kids, and it seems every other one has asthma. We’re in an epidemic of asthma, and the epidemiologists include air pollution, among others, as a cause. Fine particulates from air pollution lodge in the lungs, triggering asthma attacks, and other lung problems. Again those pesky epidemiologists can put a number on the number of people who die each year from these particulates. Amazes me we’re willing to put up with this level of pollution when we can actually measure the number of deaths that result.

  2. Thanks, Michael. Although I wouldn’t want to completely discount diet as a factor in almost anything, it makes sense to me that air pollution would be a pretty big force on the asthma front. I hope you’ll keep us posted…

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