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Pinwheels Raise Awareness for Little-Known Lung Disease COPD

By Mathew Katz | September 14, 2011 3:31pm | Updated on September 15, 2011 12:25pm
The pinwheels in Michael Kalish's
The pinwheels in Michael Kalish's "24M" are made of license plates from every state in America. The number of plates used from each state reflects the percentage of that state's population that has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
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DNAinfo/Mathew Katz

HELL'S KITCHEN — An artist is hoping his new exhibit — a collection of two-dozen colorful pinwheels now spinning at Pier 84 — will help raise awareness about the deadliest disease you've likely never heard of.

Artist Michael Kalish's "24M" is now set up next to the Intrepid Museum, near 44th Street and 12th Avenue. The 24 spinning blades represent the roughly 24 million Americans who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, a progressive lung disease also known as chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

The disease, which generally affects the elderly but can afflict anyone, is the fourth-leading cause of death in America, killing more people each year than breast cancer and diabetes combined, according to U.S. Department of Health. Smoking increases the risk.

Each pinwheel represents breathing, since the the symptoms often include extreme coughing and shortness of breath.

"I didn't know what this was a year ago," Kalish said. "But that number — 24 million — it stuck out."

The pinwheels are made of license plates from every state in America, and the number of plates used from each state reflects the percentage of that state's population that suffers from COPD.

New York is in the top four in terms of prevalence of the disease, along with California, Florida and Texas.

The exhibit is part of DRIVE4COPD, a campaign to raise awareness of the disease. Experts say roughly half of those with COPD don't know they have it.

"It is a monumental problem in this country," said Dr. Byron Thomashow, the co-chair of the NYState COPD Coalition. "There's a tremendous amount of awareness that's needed here."

Thomashow said that COPD often goes undetected because many of its symptoms seem like byproducts of getting older or being out of shape. That was the case with Erica Shietinger's mother-in-law, Gene, who died of COPD at 81.

"We attributed her shortness of breath to general old age," said Shietinger, who came out to view the installation Wednesday. She had no idea what COPD was until her mother-in-law was diagnosed with it.

"I guess that's why most people don't raise a red flag," she said.

Shietinger added she hopes those who may be at risk for the disease take the campaign's five-question screener test

"It's such a simple process. Five questions. How easy is that?" she said.

The exhibit runs at Pier 84 until Sept. 20.