NEW RESEARCH: Study of natural gas flaring finds high risks to babies

Leigh Hooper, USC News

PRESS COVERAGE: New York Times via Reuters, Houston Chronicle, Environmental Health News

Researchers from USC and UCLA have found that women living near natural gas and oil wells that use flaring to burn off excess gas face a 50% greater risk of premature birth than women with no exposure.

Researchers examining 23,487 live births in Texas found exposure among pregnant women to a high volume of flaring events was associated with 50% higher odds of preterm birth compared with no exposure.
Photo: Shutterstock

“Our study finds that living near flaring is harmful to pregnant women and babies,” said Jill Johnston, an environmental health scientist at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We have seen a sharp increase in flaring in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, and this is the first study to explore the potential health impacts.”
Flares, which can burn for weeks at a time, release harmful chemicals such as benzene as well as fine particle pollution, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals and black carbon. Several of these combustion-related pollutants are linked to a higher risk of preterm birth and reduced birthweight in other contexts.

The research appears July 15 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study examined 23,487 live births to women living within the Eagle Ford region between 2012 to 2015. The Eagle Ford Shale geological formation, measuring 50 miles wide and 400 miles long, is one of the most productive oil and gas regions in the country due to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” In a previous study, the research team estimated the area was subject to more than 43,000 flaring events between 2012 and 2016.

Latinas impacted the most by higher flaring numbers

The preterm birth rate was 14% among pregnant women exposed to a high number of flares, researchers found. Babies born prematurely – before the 37th completed week of pregnancy — may suffer complications such as immature lungs, difficulty regulating body temperature, poor feeding and slow weight gain.

The researchers used satellite observations to measure flaring activity because systemic reporting of flaring is lacking. They adjusted for other known risk factors for preterm birth in their analysis, including age, smoking, insurance status and access to prenatal care, and concluded that exposure to a high amount of flaring was associated with 50% higher odds of preterm birth compared with no exposure. A high amount of flaring was defined as 10 or more nightly flare events within 3 miles of the pregnant woman’s home.

“Women who identified as Latina or Hispanic in our study were exposed to more flaring and more likely to see an increased risk of preterm birth, raising environmental justice concerns about the oil and gas boom in south Texas,” said Lara Cushing, an environmental health scientist with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who co-led the study with Johnston. “Our study adds to the evidence that oil and gas development is negatively impacting birth outcomes and suggests stricter regulation of the industry is needed.”

Women who lived within 3 miles of a high number of oil and gas wells also had higher odds of a preterm birth than mothers who did not live near wells. Their babies were also born weighing 19.4 grams, or seven ounces, lighter on average. This suggests that, in addition to flaring, other exposures related to oil and gas wells may also be adversely impacting pregnancy, the researchers said.

Flaring is largely unregulated, underreported

The majority (55%) of the women in the study population identified as Latina or Hispanic, and the odds of preterm birth among Hispanic women exposed to high levels of flaring was greater than the corresponding odds among non-Hispanic White women, who made up 37% of the study population. Nearly 60% of women in the study were on public health insurance (Medicaid) and 17% were foreign born.

Amid an oil boom in recent years, the United States has been responsible for the highest number of flares of any country, flaring an estimated 14.1 billion square meters of natural gas in 2018. Eighty percent of flaring is occurring in Texas and in North Dakota shale plays, where much of the U.S. fracking occurs. That said, according to researchers, flaring largely remains underreported and unregulated.

In addition to Johnston and Cushing, other authors of the study include Kate Vavra-Musser, Khang Chau and Meredith Franklin, all of USC.
The study was supported by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Photo credit: iStock

NEW RESEARCH: Childhood Obesity Linked to Multiple Environmental Factors in First-of-Its-Kind Study

by Wayne Lewis, Media Relations, KSOM

ADDITIONAL COVERAGE: Environmental Health News

Exposure to smoking and air pollution as well as living in densely populated areas or those with low walkability pinpointed by international collaboration co-led by Keck School of Medicine of USC

Childhood obesity is a health threat that is becoming more and more common worldwide. It increases risk later on for a variety of life-threatening challenges, including type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and even mental health problems.

A new study led by scientists at USC and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) is the first to comprehensively profile environmental factors linked to childhood obesity. The research showed that a higher body mass index (BMI), an estimate of body fat, during childhood is associated with exposure to smoking — both in the womb and while growing up — as well as air pollution and certain characteristics seen in some urban areas. Differences in socioeconomic status did not explain these results.

Photo credit: iStock

The findings were just published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

“People are not exposed to only one chemical during their lives,” said Dr. Lida Chatzi, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the senior author of the study. “They are exposed to multiple chemicals. With that in mind, we try to understand the totality of environmental exposures.”

Dr. Chatzi and her colleagues are exploring the exposome, an endeavor meant to complement investigations into the genome. Just as many studies of the genome attempt to clarify how the content of genes affect health, studies such as this one attempt to clarify how health is affected by every environmental influence from conception onward. This new approach contrasts with a traditional method for probing population health, zeroing in on one or two environmental factors in a given investigation.

All told, the paper examined 173 factors — 77 during pregnancy and 96 during childhood. These included air pollutants, families’ human-made surroundings and access to green space, tobacco smoke and chemical pollutants such as heavy metals and pesticides.

The researchers studied a group of about 1,300 children aged 6 to 11 years from six European countries: France, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Spain and the United Kingdom. Data about the women and their children have been gathered, starting at pregnancy, through a collaborative longitudinal research project known as the Human Early Life Exposome (HELIX) study.

Smoking exposure, air pollution and lack of exercise

Mothers’ smoking during pregnancy was the most prominent association with high BMI among children, and the only prenatal factor with a significant association. Additionally, high BMI was associated with exposure to secondhand smoke, as measured through levels of a certain chemical in childrens’ urine samples. Taken together, these findings suggest that kicking the habit — or never picking it up — is one way that parents can safeguard the long-term health of their offspring.“This is quite an important message,” Dr. Chatzi said. “Maternal smoking during pregnancy and exposures to secondhand smoke are quite prevalent worldwide.”

Exposure to air pollution, both indoors and out, was another factor linked to higher BMI. Specific pollutants were nitrogen dioxide — a component of automobile exhaust and other gases released when fossil fuels burn — as well as particles in the atmosphere. Certain attributes of the areas where children live also showed a strong correlation with BMI. BMI was higher for children who live in densely populated areas. But BMI was lower for those who went to school in areas that are denser in facilities such as businesses, community services, educational institutions, restaurants and shopping — a proxy for a neighborhood’s walkability.

“With more facilities, children can walk, ride their bikes, go play sports,” Dr. Chatzi said. “You can contrast this with what are described as food deserts, or areas with fewer facilities.” The researchers note that better understanding of the impact of environmental exposure could create opportunities to take action that reverses the trend of increasing childhood obesity, ultimately mitigating its long-term dangers.

“These findings provide further evidence that modifying environmental exposures early in life can limit the risk of obesity and associated complications,” said first author Martine Vrijheid, research professor at ISGlobal and principal investigator of the HELIX project. “The implications for public health are important since these results may help to identify obesity-related exposures that could be targeted for prevention and intervention early in life.”

About this study
In addition to Dr. Chatzi and Vrijheid, the studies’ co-authors are Serena Fossati, Léa Maitre, Sandra Márquez, Maribel Casas, Montserrat de Castro, David Donaire-Gonzalez, Oliver Robinson, Jordi Sunyer, Ibon Tamayo-Uria, Jose Urquiza, Antonia Valentin, Charline Warembourg, Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen and Xavier Basagaña from the the ISGlobal Institute, Barcelona, Spain; Theano Roumeliotaki and Marina Vafeiadi from the Department of Social Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Crete, Heraklion, Crete, Greece; Lydiane Agier, Solène Cadiou and Valerie Siroux from the Team of Environmental Epidemiology Applied to Reproduction and Respiratory Health, INSERM, CNRS, University Grenoble Alpes, Institute for Advanced Biosciences (IAB), U1209 Joint Research Center, Grenoble, France; Sandra Andrusaityte, Audrius Dedele and Regina Grazuleviciene from the Department of Environmental Sciences, Vytautas Magnus University, Kaunas, Lithuania; Line S. Haug, Helle Margrete Meltzer, Eleni Papadopouplou, Amrit K. Sakhi, Per E. Schwarze and Cathrine Thomsen from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Oslo, Norway; and Rosemary McEachan and John Wright from the Bradford Institute for Health Research, Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Bradford, UK.

This study was supported by the European Community Seventh Framework Program (Human Early Life Exposome Project, grant ID: 308333) and by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (R21ES029681).

This press release can also be found here.

NEW INFOGRAPHIC: The Impacts of Natural Gas on Public Health and the Environment

The Community Engagement Program on Health and Environment has collaborated with longtime partners of T.H.E. Impact Project to produce this infographic that shares science on, and realities that frontline environmental justice communities experience when living, working, and playing near natural gas extraction, production, and distribution processes.

“Important conversations are happening throughout Southern California about our energy future and the climate crisis.  We hope this infographic provides communities with access to key scientific information to engage in improving the environmental health of the region,” said Jill Johnston, assistant professor of preventive medicine and Director of the Community Engagement program.

Click here to find the full length graphic in English and Spanish with associated research article collection and printable PDF handouts.

This infographic brings together a lot of complex information about natural gas and makes it understandable and meaningful to many – especially to those of us whose health is most negatively impacted by air pollution.

Sylvia Betancourt, Director, Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma

We are thankful to have partnered with USC Environmental Health Centers to create this infographic that not only makes a complex system easier to understand, the health studies also help debunk the harmful lies and greenwashing the fossil fuel industry is peddling in our communities.

Taylor Thomas, Research and Policy Analyst, East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice

“For years, natural gas operations have brought harm to communities across the world. For us, in the Inland Empire, we have felt first hand how relying on natural gas for the just transition of the transportation sector endangers us and continues to create the same pattern of environmental injustice. We are excited to continue working in good company with our partners on this issue.”

Andrea Vidaurre, Policy Analyst, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice



MADRES Center researchers publish interactive StoryMap highlighting disparities and COVID19

Our team of researchers from our MADRES Environmental Health Disparities Center (MADRES Center) recently published this interactive StoryMap. “Just as we see strong disparities along racial and ethnic lines with environmental exposures, susceptibility and health outcomes, we are increasingly seeing similar patterns emerge with COVID-19. We built this story map to shed light on how these factors overlap and co-exist in MADRES neighborhoods,” said MADRES investigator Rima Habre, ScD.

MADRES participants live in some of the neighborhoods currently most impacted by COVID-19.
Image: MADRES COVID19 StoryMap

Our MADRES Center investigates how disproportionate exposures to environmental contaminants, in conjunction with population susceptibility factors, impacts maternal and child health disparities in Los Angeles, CA.

Preview the StoryMap below or click here for the full experience.

MADRES and COVID-19 StoryMap. Find the full interactive version of this map here.

NEW RESEARCH: Moderate fish intake by moms linked to health benefits for kids

Dr. Chatzi led a research team that linked children’s healthier metabolic profiles to levels of inflammation biomarkers in maternal and cord blood. This article appears in the NIEHS Environmental Factor newsletter of May 5, 2020.

By Kelly Lenox, NIEHS

An international team of researchers reported that the children of women who ate between one and three servings of fish per week during pregnancy saw health benefits in later childhood. Women who ate fish more or less often had children who showed more signs of metabolic syndrome and inflammation. The study, partially funded by NIEHS, was published March 2 in JAMA Network Open.

“Fish is an important source of nutrients, and its consumption should not be avoided,” said NIEHS grantee Leda Chatzi, M.D., Ph.D., as quoted in a March 16 press release from the University of Southern California (USC). Chatzi is from the USC Keck School of Medicine and senior investigator on the study. “But pregnant women should stick to one to three servings of fish a week as recommended, and not eat more, because of the potential contamination of fish by mercury and other persistent organic pollutants.”

Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Chatzi and her co-authors wrote that this was the first study they knew of that compared prenatal mercury exposure with metabolic profiles in children, including obesity and insulin measures.

For more resources and information on mercury and fish visit the NIEHS Environmental Factor article here.

Continue reading “NEW RESEARCH: Moderate fish intake by moms linked to health benefits for kids”

NEW PUBLICATION: Community engaged participatory youth air monitoring program in urban Los Angeles “A Day in the Life”

The Community Engagement Program on Health and the Environment team of Wendy Gutschow and Jill Johnston, along with partners Zully Juarez (prospective UCLA MURP graduate in 2020), Sandy Navarro (LA Grit Media), Ashley Hernandez (Communities for a Better Environment) have published an article in IJERPH about the program they implemented that incorporated air monitoring and storytelling with youth in environmental justice organizations around the Los Angeles area.

A Day in the Life participants at Communities for a Better Environment learn about air monitoring using AirBeams.
A Day in the Life participants at South Central Youth Leadership Coalition monitor the air front of the AllenCo oil drilling site in South Los Angeles.

From the article:

Air pollution in Southern California does not impact all communities equally; communities of color are disproportionately burdened by poor air quality and more likely to live near industrial facilities and freeways. Government regulatory monitors do not have the spatial resolution to provide air quality information at the neighborhood or personal scale. We describe the A Day in the Life program, an approach to participatory air monitoring that engages youth in collecting data that they can then analyze and use to take action. Academics partnered with Los Angeles-based youth environmental justice organizations to combine personal air monitoring, participatory science, and digital storytelling to build capacity to address local air quality issues. Eighteen youth participants from four different neighborhoods wore portable personal PM2.5 (fine particles <2.5 µm in diameter) monitors for a day in each of their respective communities, documenting and mapping their exposure to PM2.5 during their daily routine. Air monitoring was coupled with photography and videos to document what they experienced over the course of their day. The PM2.5 exposure during the day for participants averaged 10.7 µg/m3, although the range stretched from <1 to 180 µg/m3. One-third of all measurements were taken <300 m from a freeway. Overall, we demonstrate a method to increase local youth-centered understanding of personal exposures, pollution sources, and vulnerability to air quality.

“I enjoyed doing this project because it was a lot of new information for me that directly impacts me as a community member, as well as learning about the way particulate matter affects our daily lives. With all of this new information, I want to educate my community on how harmful these particulates are, and how change should begin with personal choices people make throughout their day.”—CBE Youth, Huntington Park, CA.

To read more of how this program was implemented and the work that the youth, community organizers and staff put into making this happen, click through to read and download the full article here. Read more about the program on the Day in the Life program page here.  

Participants in the Day in the Life program since its inception in 2017 include:

LA Grit Media, South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, Communities for a Better Environment, Promoting Youth Advocacy, and Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, and Pacoima Beautiful.

The article is open access, available free of change to anyone who would like to download it.

Jill E. Johnston, Zully Juarez, Sandy Navarro, Ashley Hernandez, and Wendy Gutschow. (2020) “Youth Engaged Participatory Air Monitoring: A ‘Day in the Life’ in Urban Environmental Justice Communities.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17(1), 93;

This work was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (5P30ES007048 and P01ES022845) and the Environmental Protection Agency (83544101).

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”