There’s a link between pediatric asthma and neighborhoods that flood—especially low-income ones, researchers say

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Researchers at Old Dominion University have been trying for years to understand the many ways repeated flooding affects the residents of Hampton Roads, Virginia.

They have delved into how increasing flooding affects quality of life, traffic, land subsidence and more.

Now a few ODU researchers have turned to Portsmouth. And after interviewing households across the city, they say one of the most troubling patterns emerging is a likely link between chronic flooding and childhood asthma.

“We were really shocked by the prevalence of asthma in Portsmouth, in certain populations, in certain regions,” said Joshua Behr, an associate professor of research at ODU’s Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center.

The trend is especially bad among renters and people in low-income neighborhoods.

Virginia’s asthma rates are already above the national average, but they’re even higher in Hampton Roads, and even more so in Portsmouth, Behr said.

“Then you go to certain (Portsmouth) neighborhoods and you look at childhood asthma and it’s just off the charts — five or sixfold what it should be.”

The findings are part of a broader project by Behr and Rafael Diaz, also an associate professor of research at the simulation center. Some of it has been commissioned by government agencies, including the City of Portsmouth and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For the asthma data, Behr said he and Diaz interviewed about 5% of all households in Portsmouth.

About a quarter of them said at least one person in the household had asthma. More than a third of these were children.

Nearly a third of households with asthma also reported being unable to get in or out of their homes in the past year because of flooding.

In a preliminary presentation of the data, Behr and Diaz discuss a host of other factors.

Households who reported having suffered damage to their property as a result of flooding, for example, were more likely to report asthma.

However, all of this simply demonstrates correlation, not direct causation, Behr acknowledged.

Connecting the dots between asthma levels and recurrent flooding is an ongoing process.

Established research already shows that flooding leads to mold and mildew in a home, and that mold and mildew are triggers of asthma, Behr said.

Mold and mildew were present in the homes of about a third of Portsmouth households with asthma.

What the ODU team hopes to do is build a compelling case that increasing flooding can exacerbate asthma in a region prone to such rising water.

Mold and mildew is one reason. Worsening seasonal allergies and weather related to climate change may be others. Behr said he hopes to do more research into exactly how triggers associated with recurrent flooding may be behind bad asthma.

Lax code enforcement and absentee landlords appear to exacerbate the problem in Hampton Roads, he added.

The areas most prone to flooding become cheaper to live in, attracting low-income people. They can then lose property to flooding, even if they are least equipped to pay for it, and become a “vicious circle,” Behr said.

Asthma is not just an inconvenience. The Portsmouth surveys show that in households with asthma, nearly half went to the emergency room at least once in the past year, with 14% going to the emergency room at least twice.

There are also big economic implications, Diaz said. For example, in a single-parent household, flooding and asthma-induced emergency room visits can lead to late work and school.

In a federal employer-heavy region like Hampton Roads, that could be an eventual hit on the workforce and national security, Diaz said. Not to mention health care costs.

“We’ve put a lot of energy and focus, and rightly so, on hurricanes and tidal wave and the next big storm,” Behr said. “But recurring flooding happens regularly. And the cumulative cost of that, to certain neighborhoods and households over time, is equal to or greater than the loss of a major hurricane.”

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