Local KPCC reporter, Deepa Fernandez (Early Childhood Development Correspondent) approached SCEHSC staff and researchers last year to inquire about air pollution monitoring and health effects of near roadway air pollution on children. Today her feature story about childcare centers in Los Angeles in close proximity to freeways was published.We are proud to not only have our center members quoted in the story, but community partners as well.
Culver City writer Tracey Moore loved everything about her daughter’s daycare. It was close to her family’s house, included some Spanish immersion, and her young child was smitten with the staff.
So when the owner informed parents she was moving, there was unanimous consensus among families that they would all follow her.
But when Moore saw the new daycare location, she was devastated: “It’s a side street that dead ends right at the freeway,” she recalled, “and the preschool is about a stone’s throw [away].”
Every day, more than 300,000 cars and trucks rumble through that section of the 405, according to CalTrans data for 2014 – making it one of the most highly-trafficked spots in Los Angeles. Moore didn’t know that specific statistic, but she could see the traffic and was concerned about what she called the “invisible ribbon of particles” drifting off the freeway from cars and trucks directly into the yard of the day care. Read more here
Many studies have measured the health effects of pollution by comparing locations with different air quality. The challenge lies in ruling out other factors that may account for health differences between communities.
By following more than 2,000 children in the same locations over two decades and adjusting for age, gender, ethnicity, height, respiratory illness and other variations, the study provides stronger evidence that improved air quality by itself brings health benefits – benefits which last a lifetime for children breathing cleaner air during their critical growing years.
“We saw pretty substantial improvements in lung function development in our most recent cohort of children,” said lead author W. James Gauderman, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, noting this was the first good news from the long-running study.
“It’s strange to be reporting positive numbers instead of negative numbers after 20 years.”
Widely-covered previous findings from the study showed an increase in stunted lung development for children in areas with heavy air pollution, as well as a higher risk of asthma for children living near busy roadways.
Combined exposure to two harmful pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter of diameter under 2.5 microns (PM2.5), fell approximately 40 percent for the third cohort of 2007-2011 compared to the first cohort of 1994-98. The study followed children from Long Beach, Mira Loma, Riverside, San Dimas and Upland.
Children’s lungs grew faster as air quality improved. Lung growth from age 11 to 15 was more than 10 percent greater for children breathing the lower levels of NO2 from 2007 to 2011 compared to those breathing higher levels from 1994-1998.
The percentage of children in the study with abnormally low lung function at age 15 dropped from nearly 8 percent for the 1994-98 cohort, to 6.3 percent in 1997-2001, to just 3.6 percent for children followed between 2007 and 2011.
That compares to 2.5 percent by age 18 for children from the first two cohorts who lived in cities with cleaner air, such as Lompoc and Santa Maria. Cuts in federal funding forced the researchers to exclude those cities in the last cohort and focus only on areas with heavier air pollution.
“Reduced lung function in adulthood has been strongly associated with increased risks of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and premature death,” said Gauderman. “Improved air quality over the past 20 years has helped reduce the gap in lung health for kids inside, versus outside, the L.A. basin.”
The growing years are critical for lung development. The researchers are monitoring lung function in a group of adults who participated in the study as adolescents. So far they have not found evidence of a rebound after the teenage years.
“Their lungs may have lost the opportunity to grow any more,” Gauderman suggested.
Broad benefits from better air
Lung development measured by the study improved across the board, regardless of education, ethnicity, tobacco exposure, pet ownership and other factors.
Across all five communities, lung development for children with asthma improved roughly twice as much as for other children. But even children without asthma showed significant improvements in their lung capacity, suggesting that all kids benefit from improved air quality.
“We expect that our results are relevant for areas outside southern California, since the pollutants we found most strongly linked to improved health — nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter — are elevated in any urban environment,” Gauderman said.
The incidence of asthma did not change significantly over the three cohorts. Previous research by the Children’s Health Study showed that the risk of asthma increases with proximity to busy roadways.
Lung function testing took place in school at least three times for each cohort, when the children were approximately 11, 13, and 15 years old. Students were asked to blow into a spirometer, an instrument that measures lung size and strength. The spirometer reads total lung volume as well as the amount of air that a person is able to blow out in one second.
Air quality monitoring stations in the five communities took continuous readings of key pollutants over the study period, which the researchers averaged to examine the exposures for each cohort.
Southern California cleans up
Local, state and federal regulations have achieved large reductions in pollutants in the Los Angeles basin.
In 2011, the concentration of NO2 was below the federal standard throughout the basin. PM2.5 was below the federal standard over most of the basin, and near the standard in a small area straddling Riverside and San Bernardino counties. However, the federal standard was lowered in 2012, leaving the five communities in the study at or slightly above the new standard.
Ozone was below the federal eight-hour standard for most of Los Angeles and the coastal basin and exceeded the standard fewer than 20 days a year in the valleys, although parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties continued to exceed the federal standard 40 to 80 or more days per year.
“It’s an environmental success story. The air has gotten much cleaner than it was in the past. I grew up here in the ‘70s. Even from Pasadena you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains on a typical summer day,” Gauderman said.
Gains not guaranteed
Gauderman cautioned: “We can’t get complacent, because not surprisingly the number of vehicles on our roads is continually increasing. Also, the activities at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach, which are our biggest polluting sources, are projected to increase. That means more trucks on the road, more trains carrying cargo.”
“These gains really aren’t fixed,” added senior author Frank Gilliland, Hastings Professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School. “We have to maintain the same sort of level of effort to keep the levels of air pollution down. Just because we’ve succeeded now doesn’t mean that without continued effort we’re going to succeed in the future.”
Gilliland noted that the state’s historic drought is expected to raise particulate pollution.
The study’s third cohort of 2007-11 also came of age at a fortunate time for respiratory if not financial health. The economy shrank and emissions fell during the Great Recession.
But the study also shows that air pollution and growth can coexist over the long term. The economy and population in the basin have grown since the cohort of 1994-98.
“Our results suggest that better air quality in future will lead to even better lung health,” Gauderman said.
Gauderman’s and Gilliland’s co-authors were Robert Urman, Edward Avol, Kiros Berhane, Rob McConnell, Edward Rappaport and Roger Chang, all from the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School, and Fred Lurmann of Sonoma Technology, Inc.
The authors dedicated their paper to the late John Peters of the Keck School’s Department of Preventive Medicine, who conceived the Children’s Health Study and directed it over most of its 20 years.
The study was funded by the Health Effects Institute, a partnership of the auto industry and the federal government; the California Air Resources Board; the Hastings Foundation; and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (grants ES011627, ES07048, and ES022719).
Sources: New England Journal of Medicine
Final 2012 Air Quality Management Plan, South Coast Air Quality Management District
California Regional Haze Plan, 2014 Progress Report (Appendix C), Air Resources Board of the California Environmental Protection Agency
On April 9, 2014 the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (SCEHSC), SC-Children’s Environmental Health Center (SC-CEHC) & National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) hosted “The Community Forum: The Collision of Best Intentions.” This 2.5 hour event was attended by approximately 150 individuals representing Los Angeles area community-based organizations (CBOs) and environmental justice (EJ) groups, NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) center directors from around the U.S. and staff of NIEHS Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC) programs, appointed park and planning commissioners, graduate students from UCLA’s Master’s in Urban Planning program and UCLA’s Community Scholars program, and interested community members.
The forum brought together stakeholders around environmental health issues, particularly concerns about air pollution’s impacts on health and the epidemic of childhood obesity. Through a series of short presentations, a foundation was set to help attendees understand:
The public health dilemma of incompatible land use decisions
How we can achieve physical activity and other health benefits from building transit-oriented development (TOD) while also considering near roadway air pollution
The need for considering public health as we develop community gardens, urban parks, more walkable streets and new bicycle lanes.
Presenters and their topics included:
Welcoming comments: Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the NIEHS
As primary organizers of the event, Andrea Hricko and Carla Truax of the SCEHSC & SC-CEHC invited 16 CBOs to participate in a Poster Session that showcased the work that each group is doing around environmental health issues in the greater Los Angeles area. Midway through the event’s schedule, all participants were invited to view the posters which further engaged attendees and presenters in dialogue around these issues.
The concluding portion of the event was the open microphone session, during which all attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions, give perspective and feedback and set the stage for continued dialogue, interaction and collaboration around environmental health, smart growth and urban planning issues. Serving as moderator, Jean Armbruster, Director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s “PLACE Program” (Policies for Livable Active Communities and Environments), briefly summarized the presentations provided and guided participants into the open microphone session. It proved to be a time for attendees to ask questions, provide thoughtful ideas (e.g., why not reduce the number of cars on certain streets near schools than worry about school set-backs?) – and it promised further engagement around the environmental health issues being highlighted throughout the event.
The Community Forum sponsors thank The California Wellness Foundation and The Kresge Foundation for additional funding.
Also see this summary article that includes the Community Forum: on the NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers annual meeting, hosted by the University of Southern California (USC) April 7-9 in Los Angeles.