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Healthy for Whom? Meet Andrea Jensen, Utah's blogging 'asthma mom'

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Healthy for Whom? Meet Andrea Jensen, Utah's blogging 'asthma mom'

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This story explores how improving the home environment can reduce asthma triggers. It is a sidebar to the third part of May's series on health disparities in Salt Lake City.

Meet Andrea Jensen, Utah's blogging 'asthma mom'
The Salt Lake Tribune
Monday, March 7, 2011

Orem - Asthma has taken over Andrea Jensen’s life — and her home.

Eleven years and 12 hospitalizations after her children were diagnosed with asthma, the Orem mother has been on a hunt to find and remove asthma triggers. The journey has led her under beds, to stuffed animals and into the bushes. It also sparked a career change from interior design to asthma education for the Utah County Health Department. Jensen blogs about her life as an “asthma mom” for the department, sharing stories and tips.

Getting a handle on the home environment is critical, because allergens and irritants — including mold, pet dander, dust mites and dust, and cockroach and rodent droppings — can cause asthma attacks, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Jensen has seen two of her children turn gray in a struggle to breathe. She says her son Alex, 16, who has a severe form of the disease, has almost died twice — once from pneumonia and again after a severe fire in the valley caused his lungs to become inflamed. “That’s absolutely, unbelievably scary. Just knowing they’re that close and there’s not a thing you can do.”

She could take control of her home. Based on advice from a doctor and trial and error, the family removed the carpet upstairs (a reservoir of dust, dust mites, pollen and dander). They leave a basket at the front door to collect shoes — the allergen magnets aren’t allowed indoors. They ripped out allergy-rich bushes. They replaced their swamp cooler with central air conditioning, eliminating a source of moisture and allowing them to keep windows closed. Roller shades replaced blinds — “All those horizontal slots are a great place for dust to settle,” she says.

In 11-year-old Abby’s pink room, an air cleaner sits in the corner. Nothing is under the bed, since clutter would collect dust and cause her to wheeze. The only collectibles are two stuffed horses, washed once a month.

Jensen jokes that her kids will need therapy from her cleaning habits, but adds, “They’ll live. That’s my main focus: To keep them alive and breathing.”

Jensen may go to extremes, but the Utah County Health Department — which has some of the state’s lowest asthma hospitalization rates — is taking the message that a clean home is a healthy home to everyone, particularly the Latino population. Studies have shown some ethnic minorities have more difficulties with asthma due to genetics and home environment.

People living in multiunit housing are at a particular disadvantage: It’s difficult to control cockroaches and rodents when neighbors or landlords don’t do the same, and secondhand smoke can be recirculated through the ventilation system.

The department recently joined with Brigham Young University to survey 30 Latino adults living in apartments or duplexes. About a third of the homes had mold and insect problems and almost 20 percent didn’t have a vacuum, said Toni Carpenter, an environmental health educator at the department.

“When people move here from other countries where carpet’s not something they normally have in their house, they don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “We have people who sweep their carpet. That throws the dust into the air.”

The findings prompted the department to develop a “Healthy Home Environment Guide” with low-cost to no-cost tips.

Survey participants wanted to know what landlords must do for mold and insect problems. Landlords have a responsibility to keep their properties free of environmental health hazards, but local rules vary.

In Utah County, the health department can require landlords to control cockroaches, but not mold or indoor rodents. Adopting a code like Salt Lake Valley Health Department’s — which can be enforced against all those allergens — would require hiring four more people during a hiring freeze.

Terry Beebe, Utah County’s director of environmental health, says renters call several times a week with pest or mold complaints, and many bring up asthma as a concern.

“Everybody has a right to live in a place that’s habitable. ... If it’s something we don’t have any power over, we give them suggestions,” he said. “It’s not like we don’t care, because we do.”

hmay@sltrib.com

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