Families breathe in fun, games on Asthma Day

The air we breathe took center stage Tuesday at Merced's first World Asthma Day.

It shared the spotlight with five "green" businesses -- recognized for their sustainable practices -- and young winners of the event's poster contest.

Leaning against her shiny new bike -- a prize for winning the contest -- Cynthia Huerta explained that her interest in the medical condition began with her brother Enrique Carpenter, 10. He has asthma and experiences trouble breathing when he exercises.

Huerta drew a picture of people holding hands, next to the message, "Stop Pollution."

And the fight to stop pollution was a focus of the day. "Here in Merced, the biggest problems are ozone, PM-2.5 and PM-10 particle pollution," announced Allyson Holman, chairwoman of the Merced-Mariposa Asthma Coalition.

She then presented Merced County with its first "Asthma Report Card." It compiled statistics about pollutants and other asthma triggers in the area and recommended programs and policies to help the problem.

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About 745 Merced County children visit the emergency room because of asthma-related illnesses every year, according to the report. Schools should adopt an air quality policy that correlates with the colors of the flags schools fly outside -- which signify "good" and "bad" air days, the report suggested.

"Here in Merced, everyone knows we don't have the best air," Holman said. "It's mainly geography, and we can't support the trucks, methane sources, population growth. All of these things combined are a bad mix for air pollution."

On a lighter note, the Asthma Coalition recognized businesses doing their part to clean the air, including UC Merced, Cafe Sol, Service Master, Golden Valley Health Centers and Four Seasons Ag Consulting. These organizations are known for conserving resources and making use of local products.

Everyday residents then learned how they can clear the air and detect cases of asthma. They visited an "asthma circuit" of about 20 booths at the event's Merced College site.

Dr. Sunit Patel, a Merced physician specializing in lung diseases, spoke with visitors at a booth where people could get tested for asthma.

A common misconception about the condition, he said, is that people think it's episodic -- occurring sporadically between periods of normalcy.

"It's not," he said. "It's a chronic disease of the airway. People forget. Even if your symptoms are gone, don't stop your medication."

Volunteers Christina Hill and Mark Andrade manned the "trigger table." They quizzed visitors about what can set off asthma systems. They presented a flashlight and gum -- which are not asthma triggers -- and candles, perfumes, flowers and stuffed toys -- which can aggravate asthma.

"We're just interested in these things," said Betty Wetters, a Merced resident who visited World Asthma Day with her grandson, Evren Ayik, 6. "We wanted to learn about asthma and have some fun."

The "fun" included volleyball and bean-bag tosses for the kids, as well as educational booths. Evren took special interest in the bat-box booth, where he and his grandmother learned about the importance of bats to the environment.

Wetters, a retired nurse, doesn't have asthma. But when asked if she knew anyone who did, she quickly answered "Oh, yes!

"Fortunately," she added, "no one in our family has it."

And through education and treatment, other visitors to the event might soon be able to say the same.

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at (209) 385-2472 or