Buddiga: Time to plan for a healthier Fresno County

September 5, 2013 

eeing up to 30 patients per day, I know that many are dealing with the consequences of their environment. Whether people are sick with asthma or diabetes or other chronic diseases, it is clear to me that where people live impacts health. We have built our way into poor health for decades, and it needs to change.

Neighborhoods designed for cars are not healthy neighborhoods. Unfortunately, the way our communities have been designed increase traffic and pollution while reducing opportunities to walk or bike for even the shortest daily errands. Air pollution impacts chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart and lung disease.

It is time to plan for a healthier Fresno. It is time to revitalize our downtowns and rural neighborhoods. It is time for more sidewalks and walking, more bike lanes and bicycling, more bus trips and transit options. It is time to connect regional planning decisions to public health.

When residents have to get in their cars for short trips to the store, school or church, it affects their health. Every day, I see the toll that COPD, asthma and other respiratory illnesses take on my patients, my friends and my own family.

Breathing unhealthy air can affect everything from birth weight to school performance, and it can lead to an increased risk for a lifetime of lung disease. In fact, recent research found that we could eliminate more than 20,000 respiratory illnesses and save $342 million in health costs annually simply from smarter community planning that reduces traffic pollution in the San Joaquin Valley.

As a physician, I'm alarmed by the annual reports that continue to give the Valley's unhealthy air a failing grade. Despite efforts to clean up cars, trucks and power plants, every year the American Lung Association State of the Air report reminds us that Valley cities are among the most polluted in America.

We know that unhealthy air costs our Valley economy $6 billion each year; that's $1,400 per Valley resident. According to the California Department of Public Health, one in five kids in Fresno have been diagnosed with asthma, well above the statewide average. In 2010, 700 Fresno kids were hospitalized due to asthma, at a cost of more than $11 million. Particulates, like those spewed from diesel trucks, agricultural equipment and local sources, help take the lives of 1,500 Valley residents each year, according to state research.

As far as our chronic illness burdens, we don't fare much better. Thirty percent of Fresno adults are obese, as are more than 40% of our children. The April 2013 report by state and local health officers ranked Fresno County 52nd worst for diabetes deaths. Nearly 200,000 of our fellow residents have heart disease. Daily, I see patients who struggle with diabetes and heart disease that could be improved through moderate daily exercise. We need to plan for better health.

We can't change our geography — which naturally traps some air pollution — but there is something we can do: Urge regional planners to consider public health when designing neighborhoods for easy access to schools, work and shopping.

As our Council of Governments moves forward to provide a plan for growing in the future, those in the health community, and all those who want healthier communities, need to speak out.

The Fresno COG has been holding workshops that provide a real opportunity to vote for a vision that makes health a priority. The final workshop is this coming Monday, Sept. 9. We have an opportunity to ask important questions: Which option provides the most opportunities for walking and biking as safe, practical alternatives to driving? Which option gets the most buses rolling to the most places we need to be? Which looks at our downtowns and rural communities for new housing rather than taking precious farmland?

Such decisions affect the health of everyone, so everyone should use this opportunity to envision and support a healthier place to live and raise their families.

 

Dr. Praveen Buddiga is a specialist in allergy and asthma practicing in Fresno and a volunteer with the American Lung Association in California. The Fresno Council of Governments workshop details are available online at www.fresnocog.org.

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