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New Data Show Triggers, Hope For Asthma Sufferers In Louisville

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Thelma Bey is sitting on a bench in Louisville’s Central Park. Nearby, her two grandsons are playing in the splashpad, and Bey is watching them like a hawk.

Wednesday is a good day for Bey. The air is fresh, and the temperature is in the mid-80s. This mild weather dictates whether Bey and the kids can leave her house at all during the day.

Bey is one of the 85,000 people in Jefferson County with asthma. She blames it on the smoking she did when she was younger, but there are other environmental factors that contribute to her asthma she can’t control.

According to data collected by the Louisville-based Institute for Healthy Water,

Air and Soil, and made public on Wednesday, Old Louisville and NuLu — where Bey lives — are two of the many high-risk neighborhoods in Louisville. Almost a quarter of people in those areas have asthma.

It’s not just the fear of having her average twice-weekly asthma attacks that that affects Bey’s health. It affects her entire body and her lifestyle choices.

“I do need to get out and start walking more for my health, and I’d like to go out and garden, do a little planting,” Bey says.

The study shows promise for people like Bey.

Researchers gave 1, 147 people with asthma small devices that attach to the top of an inhaler. And every time a person had an asthma attack and used his or her inhaler, the device, made by medical device company Propeller Health, sent that data to researchers. The date, time and location were logged, and matched up with the air conditions at that exact time.

Bey is intimately aware of some factors researchers pinpointed as contributing to inhaler use across the metro area: things like humidity, pollen levels and temperature, as well as pollution like ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Her asthma has made Bey an amateur scientist. Her decisions to go outside are based on local TV weather reports.

With the Propeller Health device, however, those TV reports wouldn't be necessary. After a few months, the device actually learned people’s asthma triggers, according to the study. Instead of someone like Bey staying inside, just in case, the device could preemptively warn her when conditions could make it hard for her to breathe outside based on when she used her inhaler.

Over a year of using these devices, researchers saw that people doubled their amount of days without asthma symptoms, and more than a quarter of people went from having two or more asthma attacks a week to just one.

“If I know more about the ozone and humidity, it’d help me a lot,” Bey said. “It would stop me from worrying so much.”

Louisville Metro government and the Institute for Air, Water and Soil are taking that data and trying to apply it to help change asthma rates at the city level. Those include planting more trees to filter out pollutants and creating specific routes for diesel trucks that steer them away from residential neighborhoods.

Mayor Greg Fischer says these are issues that disproportionally affect low-income areas.

"Trees are a justice issue as well," he says. "And that the lack of an adequate tree canopy most impacts people from low income areas of our community. "

Propeller Health is also working with city government to develop asthma alerts for residents.

These changes are likely to take awhile. For now, Bey will keep watching her TV weather report. She’s interested in the new device and the changes that could come from the city’s research. It’s not often she’s able to spend four hours at the park with her grandsons.

June Leffler contributed to this report.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.