Book explores history, causes of allergy and asthma epidemic

MADISON - Why is it that actions we think will improve a situation more often than not make it worse"

Efforts to create a safe haven from allergens, for example, actually have contributed to the alarming rise of this irritating and even deadly malady, according to Gregg Mitman, William Coleman Professor of the History of Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In his new book, "Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes" (Yale University Press, May 2007), Mitman points out that shortsightedness is part, but not all, of the problem.

"We narrowly focus our attention on what promises to be the next magic bullet that holds the promise of a cure-all for every ill," Mitman says.

There has been no magic bullet. America's raging asthma and allergies afflictions continue unchecked from their first stirrings in the 1800s to the present, pollen-infested moment.

In the 19th century, sufferers who could afford to escaped from the hurly-burly of town to fashionable seaside, mountain and suburban retreats. Once so ensconced, they hired the nation's premier landscape architects to create soothing settings thought to be conducive to recovery, or at least relief.

"Frederick Law Olmsted and Jens Jensen sincerely believed that natural surrounding provided healthful benefits. Of course, these natural spaces created so attentively a century later would let loose the pollen that bedevil modern allergy sufferers," Mitman says.

To compound the problem, we were not content to modify only outdoor venues.

"The creation of artificial indoor climates through air-conditioning, for example, together with the trend toward more airtight, energy-efficient buildings, increased the risk of exposure to dust mites and mold, second-hand tobacco smoke and other indoor allergens," he says.

Mitman well appreciates this exquisite irony. However, real relief from the allergy/asthma conundrum

Contact: Gregg Mitman
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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