EDITORIAL: New research findings show that children are exposed to lead in the womb


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.

Jill Johnston

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.

Read the full story on The Conversation’s website here.

The research study associated with this editorial can be found here.

A statement regarding this research project and the ongoing work to assure the communities around the lead smelter in Los Angeles are cleaned up can be found on the website of community partner: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Infographic: USC Environmental Health Centers summarizing the research study results from the Truth Fairy Project

NEW RESEARCH: Lead contamination found in baby teeth of children living near battery smelter

By LEIGH HOPPER, USC

Blood tests for lead only reflect recent exposure, but past exposures detected in teeth may be important indicator of harm

PRESS COVERAGE: KPCC, NBC Los Angeles, CBS Los Angeles, ABC Los Angeles, KTLA, Daily News, Science Daily, KCET, Telemundo, Business Insider, KQED

Airborne lead 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 Management District.

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.”

Using laser 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.

During second trimester, teeth start to form in the mother’s womb. During the third trimester the baby is growing rapidly and incorporates nutrients and toxins to which the mother is exposed. After a child is born, they can be exposed to toxic metals in their environment. Infants are at higher risk because they crawl and put their hands and toys in their mouths.  Infographic: USC Environmental Health Centers
Continue reading “NEW RESEARCH: Lead contamination found in baby teeth of children living near battery smelter”

Dr. Rima Habre contributes to international panel on performance standards for low-cost air pollution sensors


Rima Habre holds an ultrafine particle monitor monitor while a plane flies overhead. Photo courtesy of Something in the Air documentary.

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 daily life.

Proceedings 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

For more information about the workshop, including links to all presentations, click here.

Learn more about Dr. Habre’s recent research here.

Children’s Health Study featured in new book

The following article on CityLab’s website, and can be read in full on the website. The article is an excerpt from the new book Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution (University of Chicago Press, $27.50).

How Scientists Discovered What Dirty Air Does to Kids’ Health

BETH GARDINER APRIL 22, 2019

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.

Photo/Courtesy of the South Coast Air Quality Management District

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.

This article from CityLab is an excerpt from the new book Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution (University of Chicago Press, $27.50).

Work of SCEHSC member and UCLA researcher Beate Ritz featured in new book

The work of longtime Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center member and UCLA researcher Beate Ritz, will be featured in a chapter of an upcoming book, an excerpt was published recently in Environmental Health News, is found below.

Dirty air wreaks harm long before birth

BETH GARDINER, APRIL 29, 2019

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.

Los Angles skyline. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Read the rest of the article on Environmental Health News here.
The article is an excerpt from the new book Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution (University of Chicago Press, $27.50).

“A Day in the Life” program starts its second cohort with youth members of Pacoima Beautiful

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.

Air pollution and air monitoring training during the Day in the Life workshop with youth members of Pacoima Beautiful.
Sandy Navarro of LA Grit Media presents her Storytelling for Social Change workshop during the training at Pacoima Beautiful.

Faculty spotlight for Public Health week: Carrie Breton

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.

Health issues arising from climate change and air pollution are getting more attention than ever, but what about the risks even before birth? At the Maternal And Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES) Center, researchers including Carrie Breton, ScD, associate professor of preventive medicine, have become increasingly concerned with the impact environmental factors and stressors can have in utero.

Carrie Breton
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.

Continue reading “Faculty spotlight for Public Health week: Carrie Breton”