|The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects asthma data as part of its National Asthma Control Program, which allows journalists to explore causes such as air pollution and wildfire smoke. Photo: U.S. Food and Drug Administration.|
Reporter’s Toolbox: Asthma Data — A Starting Point for Key Environment-Health Stories
By Joseph A. Davis
Journalists need not get out of breath in the effort to find asthma data — the Centers for Disease Control offers some good datasets that can help connect this common health problem and the environment.
The classic venture in environmental data journalism projects would be to overlay pollution data onto demographic and geographic features. Yes: Marginalized communities do experience a greater incidence of asthma.
Or perhaps your editor would rather have climate change-related stories than air pollution stories. No worries. These summer months are reminding us that heat cooks the smog ingredients in the air and so wildfire smoke is a big health issue in cities far from the fires themselves.
Either way, your starting point is the CDC’s site devoted to Asthma Surveillance Data.
Asthma is just one of many diseases that the CDC tracks, since part of its job is to sound the alarm if some disease is spiking. It is actually required by law to surveil for certain ones. And the agency surveils a number of environmental health issues.
In the case of asthma, the CDC tracks the disease of its own initiative (complementing state initiatives) and as part of its general public health mission. Congress supports it with funding.
Where the data come from
The CDC’s asthma surveillance is part of its National Asthma Control Program, which collects much of the data from the states (typically from public health or environmental agencies).
The agency supports this effort with a series of its own grants to states. Some 25 states and territories get them, and these are the only states that show up in the data.
Although the CDC does not make it easy to
download raw asthma data, it comes from
reliable sources and is analyzed well and
presented in useful graphic forms.
Sadly, the CDC does not make it easy for geeks to download raw asthma data. Nonetheless, users will be happy to learn that the data comes from reliable sources.
And the good news is that the agency does do a great job of analyzing the data and presenting it in useful graphic forms and summary tables.
We think the best starting place for getting the basic data is its prevalence data and data analysis tools. But note that the CDC relies on its behavioral risk factor surveillance system — a telephone survey — for what it considers statistically valid sampling. So, in the end, you may end up using several datasets.
How to use the data smartly
You will probably get more out of the data if you use it to explore the causes and consequences of asthma.
Depending on your project, causes may include air pollution, wildfire smoke, lack of health care and systematic racism. Consequences may include death, medical costs, hospitalization and longer-term lung disease.
Because the CDC’s data are mostly geographically located and presented via maps, you can overlay maps of pollution, demographics and other variables on the asthma data.
We also suggest that you explore whatever data is available from your state public health agency. The CDC provides a handy list of state program contacts.
[Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, check out our past Toolboxes on air pollution data sources and air quality monitors, on tracking respiratory health risks from wildfire smoke and wildfire smoke data, and on the Lung Association’s State of the Air report. Also see TipSheets on wildfire smoke as a local story and the health threats of smoke, along with more on particulate air pollution and soot. Plus, read Inside Story Q&As on reporting local impacts of air pollution from a local coke plant and on kids sickened by air pollution, and a BookShelf review of “Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.” For the latest headlines, see top “air” stories from EJToday.]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 29. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.