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NAFTA, Post-9/11 Security Concerns Combine to Increase Risk of Asthma in Neighborhoods Adjacent to Heavily Traveled Border Crossings

By Lois Baker

Release Date: November 15, 2004

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The North American Free Trade Agreement and increased security concerns in the post-9/11 era have combined to produce an unanticipated health problem in communities situated along U.S. borders: an increased risk of asthma.

Results of a study of residents who live near the second-busiest U.S.-Canadian border crossing, located in Buffalo, show that females, individuals between the ages of 6 and 34 years and persons of Latino descent are at increased risk of developing asthma or chronic respiratory illness.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University at Buffalo, has implications for all heavily trafficked border crossings and residential areas near major truck traffic routes.

Traffic-related pollution at border crossings, in particular, currently is receiving more attention than in the past, said Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa, M.D., because of an increase in diesel-burning commercial traffic due to the North American Free Trade Agreement and tightened post-9/11 border inspections that result in trucks waiting in long lines with their motors idling.

"Border communities worldwide suffer similar pollution problems," added Lwebuga-Mukasa, M.D., director of the Center for Asthma and Environmental Exposure at the University at Buffalo and Kaleida Health, and lead author on the study.

"Unfortunately, many problems remain unrecognized. Our focus on the Buffalo-Fort Erie, Ontario, corridor is pioneering and has led to studies at other border areas such as Windsor-Detroit and Juarez, Mexico. We expect that the approaches we are taking here will be implemented at similar traffic corridors around the globe."

Results of the study appear in the November issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

The current study set out to analyze various potential asthma risk factors in Buffalo's neighborhoods -- both close to and distant from the commercial border crossing -- define the most significant factors and pinpoint pockets of disease.

Two thousand households were selected randomly from the 2000 census to be interviewed in the city's five geographic regions. Trained interviewers were able to administer surveys to 82 percent of these households.

Results showed that location -- living near the U.S.-Canada border crossing, which is on Buffalo's West Side -- gender, age and race were significant risk factors for asthma and other respiratory conditions, even after adjusting for age of housing, pets, molds, animal dander and smoking.

The higher susceptibility of females to asthma is a puzzle, said Lwebuga–Mukasa. "During early childhood, boys have higher asthma prevalence. After puberty, girls take over. Women in child-bearing age have asthma prevalence twice that of men. No one knows why."

The higher prevalence among Latina women in this study likely is linked to location, he said, although previous published studies have indicated that women of Puerto Rican decent (which would characterize most of Buffalo's Latino population) living in northeastern United States have higher asthma rates than Caucasians.

"Because of housing patterns in Buffalo, most African Americans live on Buffalo's East Side, Latinos on the West Side and Caucasians in South Buffalo, hence comparisons by area tend to reflect these ethnic groupings," said Lwebuga-Mukasa.

"However, in a current unpublished study, we have found that Caucasian women living on Buffalo's West Side have asthma prevalence comparable to that of Latinas, and the prevalence was less than their peers living in South Buffalo. These observations suggest that location is an important contributory factor."

The findings have public-policy, as well as public-health, implications, Lwebuga-Mukasa noted.

"There is persuasive evidence that residents living in close proximity to U.S.-Canadian border crossings, as well as in other commercial areas where there is heavy truck traffic, have a major disease burden, and attention should be focused on regulatory monitoring of air quality," he said. "In addition, health effects should be incorporated into any trans-border transportation planning."

Additional researchers on the study were Tonny J. Oyana, Ph.D., formerly of UB, now at Southern Illinois University, and Paulette M. Wydro, MPH, a doctoral student in Department of Sociology, UB College of Arts and Sciences.

The research was supported by grants from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Kaleida Health Foundation.