NEW RESEARCH connects air pollution, memory problems and Alzheimer’s-like brain changes

BY Leigh Hopper, in USC News, NOVEMBER 20, 2019

Women in their 70s and 80s who were exposed to fine particle pollution had declines in memory and physical brain changes that were not seen in women who breathed cleaner air.

Women in their 70s and 80s who were exposed to higher levels of air pollution experienced greater declines in memory and more Alzheimer’s-like brain atrophy than their counterparts who breathed cleaner air, according to USC researchers.

Illustration: Shutterstock

The findings of the nationwide study, published Wednesday in the journal Brain, touch on the renewed interest in preventing Alzheimer’s disease by reducing risk as well as hint at a potential disease mechanism. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and there’s currently no cure or treatment.

“This is the first study to really show, in a statistical model, that air pollution was associated with changes in people’s brains and that those changes were then connected with declines in memory performance,” said Andrew Petkus, assistant professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. “Our hope is that, by better understanding the underlying brain changes caused by air pollution, researchers will be able to develop interventions to help people with or at risk for cognitive decline.”

Fine particles, also called PM2.5 particles, are about 1/30th the width of a human hair. They come from traffic exhaust, smoke and dust and their tiny size allows them to remain airborne for long periods, get inside buildings, be inhaled easily, and reach and accumulate in the brain. Fine particle pollution is associated with asthma, cardiovascular disease, lung disease and premature death.

Previous research has suggested that fine particle pollution exposure increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. What scientists haven’t known is whether PM2.5 alters brain structure and accelerates memory decline.

Continue reading “NEW RESEARCH connects air pollution, memory problems and Alzheimer’s-like brain changes”

NEW RESEARCH: How diet contributes to toxic exposure for pregnant women and children

BY Jenesse Miller, in USC News,  OCTOBER 22, 2019

Which foods are the healthiest, and which cause us harm? It’s been debated long before “paleo,” “low-carb” and “sugar-busting” entered our lexicon. But even staples of widely acknowledged healthy diets like fish and fruit may be harmful in higher doses for certain vulnerable groups. That’s because of exposure to pesticides and other contaminants in these foods, according to a new study in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable to exposures to food contaminants,” said study co-author Lida Chatzi, associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “During gestation and early development, the fetus and the child, respectively, are vulnerable to the effects of environmental chemicals. A balanced diet during these periods is also critical for optimal nutritional status, but what to eat, and how much, are critical questions.”

Because pregnant women and fetuses are sensitive to chemicals and pesticides found in food, researchers are studying the relationship between diet and levels of 33 environmental contaminants. (Photo/iStock, courtesy of USC News)

The study published in Environmental Health Perspectives can be found here.

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Jill Johnston recognized at the 31st Annual Clean Air Awards

On October 4, 2019, Dr. Jill Johnston was recognized for her outstanding contributions in the field of air pollution health research and efforts to improve public health as she received the Robert M. Zweig, M.D. Memorial Award given to her by the South Coast Air Quality Management District at their 31st Annual Clean Air Awards Luncheon in downtown Los Angeles.

As Dr. Johnston, accepted her award she said:

“Thank you, I am honored and humbled to receive this award.  I would like to first recognize and thank all the communities on the frontline working tirelessly to make sure we can all breathe clean air.   They are my motivation and inspiration for research and studies. 

Secondly, I thank my team of amazing women that make sure science and data doesn’t stay in the ivy tower, but is a tool for residents and public officials to use.  This aims to increase capacity of community residents to collect and understand their air quality.

Building upon decades of research from scientists, doctors and communities, the evidence is overwhelming – air pollution harms people of all ages, effects our health in many different ways and at concentrations lower than typical days in LA – and increasingly, we see evidence that this harm is transgenerational. 

As the frequency of unhealthy air days is rising, as toxics continue to be emitted near schools and homes, it is clear that we pay a too high a price for inaction. I want for my daughters to live in a LA where they won’t have to check the Air Quality Index or install air monitors because the right to clean air will be available to everyone. 

So with this, I ask that we collaborate and proactively implement real solutions.”

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New StoryMap: Urban Oil and Gas Production in Los Angeles County

Los Angeles County, California is the largest urban oil field in the country and home to thousands of active oil wells in very close proximity to homes, schools and parks.  Using state data, this new tools allows you to assess proximity of active or idle wells to your location and see how much oil or gas is produced nearby.  Overall, we find that 75% of active wells are within 2500 feet of residential buildings. 

The full StoryMap can be viewed here. A slideshow version of the StoryMap can be viewed below.

NEW RESEARCH: Estimating asthma incidence if air pollution levels had remained high and if the levels were lowered

Building off a recent study, our team of researchers had a study published this week in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). The study, looking at data from 9 communities in the Children’s Health Study can be found here.

Related research published earlier this year (Garcia et al. JAMA 2019) found strong associations between new-onset asthma in children and exposure to air pollutants, specifically NO2 and PM2.5. “We wanted to take these results a step further by estimating answers to ‘What-if’ scenarios, such as ‘What if the observed air quality improvements in the 1990s and early 2000s never happened?’ or ‘What if no one was exposed to more than 20 ppb NO2?’ This approach would provide us with an estimate of what would happen to asthma incidence rates in children given different shift in air pollution exposure,” said Erika Garcia, lead study author and researcher in the department of Preventive Medicine in the Keck School of Medicine.

9 southern California communities from the Children’s Health Study featured in this research paper. Map background layer: Google Maps.
Continue reading “NEW RESEARCH: Estimating asthma incidence if air pollution levels had remained high and if the levels were lowered”

NEW RESEARCH from our MADRES Center

A new research article published in May 2019 provides an in-depth overview of the study design, protocol, and profile of our Maternal And Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES) pregnancy cohort.

The full text of the article and more information can be found here.

The overarching goal of the “Maternal And Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES)” cohort study is to better understand the increased risk for childhood obesity and maternal obesity outcomes among underserved women and children in Los Angeles.

The burden of childhood and adult obesity disproportionately affects certain racial and ethnic groups and groups with lower income and education levels. These same groups are often disproportionately affected by environmental pollution. Pregnancy is a critical developmental period where maternal environmental exposures and stress may have significant impacts on infant and childhood growth as well as the future health of the mother.

The ongoing MADRES study is a prospective pregnancy cohort of 1000 women-child pairs in Los Angeles, CA. Enrollment in the MADRES cohort is initiated prior to 30 weeks gestation from partner community health clinics in Los Angeles. Cohort participants are followed through their pregnancies, at birth, and during the infant’s first year of life through a series of in-person visits with interviewer-administered questionnaires, anthropometric measurements and biospecimen collection as well as telephone interviews conducted with the mother.

In addition to describing the study design of the cohort, this newly published study provides an overview of the cohort characteristics for 291 participants who have delivered their infants, out of 523 participants enrolled in the study from November 2015 to October 2018 from four community health clinics in Los Angeles.

“Future results from the MADRES cohort could be used by community organizations, policy makers, health providers, to better understand the risk of chemical exposures during pregnancy as well as the importance of psychosocial stress on important health outcomes in women and children,” said lead author Tracy Bastain.

Funding

This work was supported by the Maternal and Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES) Center (grant #s P50ES026086, 83615801–0) funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the Environmental Protection Agency; the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (grant # P30ES007048) funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Lifecourse Approach to Developmental Repercussions of Environmental Agents on Metabolic and Respiratory health (LA DREAMERs) (grant #s UH3OD023287) funded by the National Institutes of Health Office of the Director ECHO Program.

NEW RESEARCH: Improved air quality leads to fewer kids developing asthma in nation’s most-polluted region

By LEIGH HOPPER, USC

PRESS COVERAGE: National Public Radio, Reuters,

Improved air quality in the Los Angeles region is linked to roughly 20 percent fewer new asthma cases in children, according to a USC study that tracked Southern California children over a 20-year period.

The findings appear in the May 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The research expands on the landmark USC Children’s Health Study, which found that children’s lungs had grown stronger in the previous two decades and rates of bronchitic symptoms decreased as pollution declined throughout the region.

“While the findings show a clear benefit of lower air pollution levels, there must be continued efforts to reduce pollution in our region,” said first author Erika Garcia, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We’re not in a place where we can stop and say, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived’.”

USC Infographic: Lower air pollution = less asthma
Graphic by Wendy Gutschow
Full study related infographic and printable PDF can be found here.

Los Angeles remains the nation’s most-polluted region, but air quality improvements between 1993 and 2006 cut nitrogen dioxide pollution by 22 percent and fine particulate matter by 36 percent.

Nitrogen dioxide can cause airway inflammation and airway hyper-responsiveness. Particulate matter — tiny particles of soot, smoke dust, etc. — can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems.

To assess new-onset cases of asthma, USC scientists used data from 4,140 children in nine California communities: Alpine, Lake Elsinore, Lake Gregory, Long Beach, Mira Loma, Riverside, San Dimas, Santa Maria and Upland. Parents or guardians completed questionnaires regarding their children’s health. New-onset asthma was defined as a newly reported, physician-diagnosed case of asthma on an annual questionnaire during follow-up.

Researchers looked at rates of new-onset asthma alongside air pollution data collected from monitoring stations in each of those communities during three different periods: 1993-2001, 1996-2004 and 2006-2014. Using statistical methods, they separately examined four air pollutants and found that two were associated with reductions in new-onset asthma. They estimated that the nitrogen dioxide reductions achieved between 1993 and 2006 led to a 20 percent lower rate of asthma, while fine particulate matter reductions led to a 19 percent lower rate.

The findings add to the increasing scientific evidence supporting the role of air pollution in the development of new cases of asthma. Asthma is the most common chronic disease in children, affecting about 14 percent of children around the world, and a major contributing factor to missed time from school and work.

“This is encouraging news as it shows the number of new cases of asthma in children can be reduced through improvements in air quality,” said Kiros Berhane, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and one of the study’s authors. “This is very likely a direct result of the science-based environmental policies that have been put in place.”

In addition to Garcia and Berhane, the study’s other authors are Talat Islam, Rob McConnell, Robert Urman, Zhanghua Chen and Frank Gilliland, all of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

The research was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (grants P30ES007048, P01ES009581, R01ES021801, and R01ES025786), the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (grant R01HL118455), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (grants R826708 and RD831861), and the Hastings Foundation.