Breathmobile rolls relief into Bay Area schools

Jun 15, 2016

Industrial pollution in West Oakland and all throughout Alameda County can cause major problems for kids who live there. Aimed at addressing this issue, a mobile asthma clinic called the Breathmobile travels around to schools in the area.

“Asthma, for starters, is a very common problem, and especially common in urban settings,” says Dr. Karen Hardy, director of the pediatric pulmonary and cystic fibrosis center at Children’s Hospital Oakland.

She says there is a direct correlation between children’s health and proximity to Interstate 880, where there is more truck traffic and diesel fuel pollution. Children who live nearby are at a greater risk of lung problems.

“The closer they live to that freeway, the more likely they are to have attacks, the more likely they are to have emergency room visits, the more likely they are to need admission, and the more likely they are to die,” says Hardy. 

In West Oakland, kids go to the ER for asthma twice as often as the average Alameda county kid. Hardy says many people don’t realize it is a potentially fatal disease and in some cases it isn’t even diagnosed correctly. She recently had a seven-year-old patient who died of asthma.

“It turns out that if you look at the patients who have died from asthma, about a third of the patients had very mild asthma and they’d never even been hospitalized with asthma,” Hardy says. 

This is where the Breathmobile comes in. 

It’s close quarters in this 33-foot Winnebago RV staffed with a nurse, pediatrician, respiratory therapist and translator who monitor children's asthma for free. The program is paid for by the Prescott-Joseph Center in West Oakland.

At Wilson Elementary School, in San Leandro, nurse Spencer Weir talks eight-year-old Miguel Rio through a pulmonary function test called spirometry.

Dr. Jennifer Louie, the pediatrician on-board, says spirometry is a luxury that they have on the Breathmobile because they spend 30 to 45 minutes on an initial visit instead of the ten to 15 minutes allocated at a standard clinic. Just teaching children how to use the machine can take up all that time.

The Breathmobile visits mainly low-income areas where not only pollution, but also home conditions trigger asthma attacks. The team also focuses on teaching families about small life changes, such as removing a rug, dusting curtains and avoiding potential triggers like dairy and pollen.

Rio’s mother, Janette, has learned a lot accompanying her son to the Breathmobile. She realized that the bleach, hairspray and perfume she was using at home can all be asthma triggers.

Reports from 2012 say Breathmobiles across the country lower asthmatic ER visit by over 70 percent, saving huge costs individually and for Media-CAL and Medicare. 

When families have asthma education children miss less school. Since his last visit, Rio has had perfect attendance, his mother says.

Since this story originally aired, the breathmobile has expanded to serve 9 cities in the Bay Area. Click here to see if there is one in your neighborhood



This story originally aired on July 14, 2010.