My team compared the levels of lead in teeth to lead levels in the soil. We discovered a significant trend. The more lead in the soil in residential neighborhoods, the higher the levels in the teeth – both prenatally and during the first year of life. We continue to collaborate with the community to work toward prevention of lead exposure and cleanup of the contaminated soil.
The following editorial by the Truth Fairy Project’s lead researcher appears in The Conversation in full.
The environmental tragedy in Flint, Michigan, in which drinking water contaminated with lead raised fears of potential health effects for exposed children, revealed the failure of a regulatory system to protect residents from lead exposure.
Until 2015 the Exide Technologies lead-acid battery smelter, in southeast Los Angeles County, California, recycled approximately 11 million lead acid batteries per year while operating on temporary state permits. This violated multiple federal environmental regulations and exposed over 100,000 residents to lead and other toxic metals. The result was large-scale environmental disaster with lead contamination of the air and soil in largely Latino communities.
As an environmental scientist and epidemiologist, I sought to understand lead pollution in children growing up in this area. For my research I collaborated with local community organizations and relied on an archive of biological samples that families often save: baby teeth.
from recycled car batteries at the Exide plant in Vernon ended up in the baby
teeth of children living nearby, a USC study shows.
“We found the
higher the level of lead in the soil, the higher the amount of lead in baby
teeth,” said first author Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive
medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “There’s no safe level of lead;
it’s a potent neurotoxin. Our study provides insight into the legacy of the impact
of industrial contamination on children.”
The Exide plant,
located just southeast of downtown Los Angeles, recycled 11 million auto batteries
per year and released 3,500 tons of lead until it closed in March 2015 as part
of a legal settlement for hazardous waste violations.
As many as
250,000 residents, mostly working-class Latinos, face a chronic health hazard
from exposure to airborne lead and arsenic that subsequently settles into the
soil, according to a 2013 health risk assessment by the South Coast Air Quality
For USC’s “Truth Fairy” study, published in the XX edition of Environmental Science & Technology, researchers collected 50 baby teeth from 43 children in five communities: Boyle Heights, Maywood, East L.A., Commerce and Huntington Park. They recruited families through churches, schools and door-to-door visits. A local organization, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, coined the name, “Truth Fairy.”
ablation and an analytical technique for molecular-level information, the
researchers were able to look at the teeth layer by layer and assign time
points for lead contamination, such as the second trimester of pregnancy, when
teeth are starting to form in the mother’s womb.
In June 2018, USC Environmental Health Centers
exposure assessment expert Rima Habre, ScD, contributed to a two-day
workshop hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Habre
discussed essential features, design recommendations and performance targets
specifically for wearable personal PM2.5 deployed in health research
studies to assess personal exposures and investigate relationships with health
outcomes in population studies. Dr. Habre’s presentation
discussed her work in the UCLA/USC Los
Angeles PRISMS center led by Dr. Alex Bui (UCLA Medical Imaging
Informatics) where researchers are developing a multi-sensor informatics
platform to enable mHealth studies of pediatric asthma. The platform, called BREATHE (Biomedical
REAl-Time Health Evaluation for Pediatric Asthma) allows researchers to monitor
environmental exposures, behaviors, medications and symptoms using Bluetooth-enabled
wearable sensors in real-time and in context, to ultimately help predict and
prevent asthma attacks in children. Dr. Habre’s presentation focused on ‘real-life
compatibility’ design and performance needs for low-cost PM2.5
sensors deployed as part of an informatics ecosystem, including flexible wear
options, battery life, communication needs, but also calibration well-suited
for mobile deployments on humans moving in and across microenvironments in
from the meeting that focused on performance targets for low cost sensors that
measure fine particulate matter and ozone, are summarized in a research
paper of which Habre is a co-author, published in April 2019 in the
Atmospheric Environment journal.
Williams, R., Duvall, R., Kilaru, V., Hagler, G., Hassinger, L., Benedict, K., Habre, R. … Ning, Z. (2019). Deliberating performance targets workshop: Potential paths for emerging PM2.5 and O3 air sensor progress. Atmospheric Environment: X, 2, 100031. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.AEAOA.2019.100031
information about the workshop, including links to all presentations, click here.
Learn more about Dr. Habre’s recent research here.
The landmark Children’s Health Study tracked thousands of children in California over many years—and transformed our understanding of air pollution’s harms.
Across Southern California, in school gyms and libraries and lunchrooms, the children filed in, one by one, to put their lips around a plastic tube and blow with all their might. Thousands of them, year after year, in rich neighborhoods and poor ones, from the breezy towns along the Pacific coast to the hot, smoggy valley locals know as the Inland Empire.
Erika Fields was one of them, back in the 1990s, when she was in high school at Long Beach Poly, just outside Los Angeles. Even now, she’s the kind of person who raises her hand, who steps forward when volunteers are needed, and she liked being the only one called out of her class, walking down the hall to the quiet room where the breathing machine sat on a desk. She liked, too, the sense of being part of something bigger than herself, something that might really matter in the world.
In the empty classroom, the woman from the University of Southern California would hand her a sterile mouthpiece, attached by a tube to the spirometer ready to gauge the power of her lungs. Erika would give it a couple of practice puffs to get comfortable before the one that counted. “I remember her saying ‘Push, push, push. Blow all the air out.’ And then she would show me on her laptop, and I could see on a graph where I pushed the most,” and watch the line edge downward as her breath tailed off.
After that, there was a survey to fill out, a couple of pages about her health and her family, about smoking in the home and pets and diet and exercise, and then Erika would walk back down the hall, back to her classmates and the ordinary rhythms of the school day.
She didn’t know it then, but those brief, once-a-year interruptions to her routine helped lay the foundation for insights that would ultimately change scientists’ understanding of what air pollution does to the human body. In the vast stacks of accumulating numbers—results from Erika Fields’s breath tests and thousands of others— a team of patient researchers would discern the outlines of a threat that had, until then, been hard to see.
Ed Avol was one of those scientists. He grew up breathing the foul air of 1960s L.A., and he remembers well the hacking coughs that filled the playgrounds of his childhood. An engineer by training, he worked early in his career on hospital-based studies that examined the effects of dirty air as researchers had for decades, by pumping pollution into small rooms and watching volunteers exercise inside.
The team he was part of wasn’t allowed to make conditions in their smog chambers any worse than what Angelenos would experience outdoors, but in the 1980s that still gave them plenty of latitude. The researchers would monitor subjects as they pedaled, measuring their heart rates and oxygen levels, making note of their coughing, their shortness of breath, and their red, watery eyes.
By that time, it was clear to scientists that ozone—the main ingredient in the smog that still plagues L.A. and so many other cities—had an immediate effect on those who breathed it. And the impact could be far more serious than the discomfort Avol saw so plainly: When ozone blankets a city, asthmatics wheeze, emergency room visits spike, and even in healthy people, the lungs can grow inflamed and struggle to do their job.
Read the rest of this article, including more of the history of the Children’s Health Study, and interviews from CHS investigators including Ed Avol and Jim Gauderman here on CityLab’s website.
The changes pollution inscribes in pregnancy haunt us not just during childhood, but throughout life
In chunky black glasses and a patterned scarf, her dark hair pulled back, Beate Ritz still looks more the sophisticated European than the casual Californian, even after decades in America.
Sunshine streams through a window into her home in the Santa Monica Mountains, above Los Angeles, as we speak on Skype, and she pours herself a cup of tea.
Ritz is an epidemiologist at UCLA, and she knows it can be nearly impossible to link one individual’s health problem to a specifc environmental cause. But the work that would shape her career began with a nagging, personal worry. The smog blanketing L.A. came as a foul shock when she arrived from her native Germany.
On April 25, USC Community Engagement staff along with community partner Sandy Navarro from LA Grit Media began A Day in the Life program with youth from Pacoima Beautiful. The training kicked off the program during which youth from Pacoima will engage in community based air monitoring and storytelling through digital media. For more information on A Day in the Life click here.
This post was published on the Department of Preventive Medicine’s website as part of their National Public Health Week series. Please find the original post here.
Environmental health researcher Carrie Breton, ScD, associate professor of preventive medicine, has dedicated the last decade to studying how environmental exposures—like air pollution—early in life contribute to the increased risk of disease later in life. In this Q&A learn about her work as part of a maternal and developmental research center.
What area of public health does your work focus on?
I conduct research centered on understanding how early-life environmental exposures affect risks for cardiovascular, respiratory and metabolic diseases later in life. As part of this research paradigm, I have focused on exploring the novel roles that epigenetic changes may have in affecting susceptibility to environmental exposures such as air pollution and tobacco smoke.
What drew you the topic of environmental exposure in particular?
I have a fundamental interest in understanding how the environment affects pregnancy and the developing child.