If cockroaches make your skin crawl, here’s yet another reason to abhor them: they trigger asthma. In fact, it now appears that cockroaches cause asthma more than any other source — including pollen, pet dander, or pollution. Although cockroaches have been a suspected asthma activator for many years, a new study out of the Boston University School of Medicine has confirmed that cockroaches are the leading cause of asthma among inner city kids.
The thing that makes this study particularly significant is that it pulled evidence not from the lab, but from real life. The researchers collected buckets of dust balls from public housing units in Detroit, using a vacuum cleaner. According to lead researcher Daniel Remick, “We collected house dust — big dust bunnies — added water, let them mix overnight, and spun the junk out of them, until we had extract.”
On analysis, the extract was filled with cockroach exoskeletons and droppings. The extract was injected into mice to sensitize their immune systems to it, and then the mice were exposed to dust particles from the same source. Upon breathing in the dust, the mice started wheezing, having asthma attacks. A control group of mice simply breathed in dust mites without having had previous exposure to the cockroach protein, and they showed none of the asthma symptoms. The researchers repeated the experiment with similar results using dust balls from different sites.
Given that up to one-third of kids who live in public housing suffer from asthma and that a third of city-dwellers who have allergies and asthma have cockroach allergies, the problem is a serious one. In addition to being sources of allergens, cockroaches carry 33 different kinds of bacteria, six kinds of parasitic worms and various other pathogens, and they trigger eczema. In other words, it is important to get rid of the pests.
And cockroaches are everywhere, not just in public housing: there are 4000 known species of the ugly bugs, ranging from teeny things to giants so large you can hear their feet tapping on the floor as they scuttle across it. (A number of years ago when travelling cross country, I met some of those bad boys personally. Their “tapping” was so loud it woke me up. We’re talkin’ big! I didn’t dare sleep the rest of the night. Also, as a Vista Volunteer back in the ’60’s, I stayed in facilities where their populations were so dense you couldn’t see one inch of actual floor when you turned the lights on at night — for about three seconds, until they all scurried over your feet and into the walls.) They live in almost every country of the world and are notoriously difficult to eradicate. To knock out cockroach infestations, many resort to using nasty pesticides, although some forms of cockroaches have developed resistance to the most popular chemicals. And so, many experts recommend using other forms of control before resorting to the more toxic methods (though pesticide application is still the most common avenue of control).
While keeping the home spotlessly clean may help, those living in crowded areas may find the pests in their house if a messy neighbor attracts them to the vicinity, or if they miss even a single errant breadcrumb in an otherwise pristine kitchen. Leaky pipes, condensation, recycling bins, or trash cans can attract them; and in tropical areas, they may seem to be omnipresent. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of American, between 78 and 98 percent of urban homes have cockroaches, and the statistic is probably similar in the tropics. The lure of biological and chemical control may become irresistible for those living on a cockroach highway, accounting at least in part for the approximately one billion dollars spent annually on cockroach control in the US.
Experts say there are many things you can do before calling the pest police. Vacuum frequently, keep garbage completely sealed and empty the trash often, seal cracks and openings around pipes coming into the house, leave no food out, wash dishes, ventilate basements and crawl spaces, get rid of sources of moisture in and around the home, trim shrubbery, (and pray). If these approaches fail, you can try non-chemical sticky traps that you make yourself. Take a jar and fill it with bread soaked in beer (those cockroaches love a good brew) and coat the inside lip with Vaseline so that once inside, the bugs can’t get out. Then, when the roaches are trapped inside the beer garden, flood the jar with detergent and water and dump the contents in the garbage. It’s rather a disgusting approach, but far less toxic and less expensive than having the exterminator come.
Meanwhile, the researchers are applying the results from the latest study in their efforts to develop more targeted asthma medications. They’re particularly interested in a type of anti-inflammatory drugs called tumor-necrosis-factor inhibitors, including such drugs as Remicade and Enbrel, which currently are prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. But these drugs work by suppressing the body’s natural inflammatory and immune responses, and they come with a very long list of potential side effects including hypertension, jaundice, bleeding, infections, seizures, neurological disorders, and even death.
Meanwhile, Dr. Jiyoun Kim of Korea has shown that certain Chinese herbs also work to block asthmatic reactions, but predictably, Dr. Remick’s team isn’t so enthusiastic. “The power and trouble with Chinese herbal medicines,” Dr. Remick said, “is that they have more than one active ingredient — they have dozens. We know they block eotaxin (the asthma trigger), but we don’t know everything they block, or what actually makes things better…We’re still in the process of precisely defining which part of the herbs block which part of the inflammatory response. It’s not a question of Eastern versus Western medicine. Other drugs that treat asthma are better defined at this point. Herbs shouldn’t be front-line.”
Now that makes sense, doesn’t it? He’s recommending that parents of kids with asthma wait for the approval of a drug that hasn’t yet been tested for use in asthma and so probably won’t hit the marketplace for years. And those tests will be for a class of drugs that now contain black-box warnings because of their potentially lethal effects, and that have been the target of numerous lawsuits. Somehow, he thinks these drugs will be safer than Chinese herbs that have “too many active ingredients.” I mean who wouldn’t want guaranteed hypertension, jaundice, bleeding, infections, seizures, neurological disorders, and even death as long as they came backed by Western scientific research? Only a fool would opt for “unresearched” herbs that have been used safely for centuries, anecdotally speaking.
“If my child had asthma,” Dr. Remick said, “I’d take her to the pediatrician.”
If you disagree with Dr. Remick, here’s some information about safe herbal remedies that you might try at home.