Airport pollution linked to acute health effects among people with asthma in Los Angeles

by Wendy Gutschow

A recent research study by Dr. Rima Habre took a detailed look at the short-term health impacts caused by breathing in ultrafine particulate (UFP) matter that is emitted from aircraft activity at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Several years ago, USC researchers identified a clear pattern of UFP emissions from takeoff and landing aircraft activities at LAX. Levels of the dangerous UFPs were found to be 4 to 5 times greater than background levels in downwind communities.  “Ultrafine particulate matter is known to contribute to reduced lung function, and airway inflammation in individuals with asthma. We wanted to take a close look at short term effects on health when individuals breathe air that contains UFPs from airplanes,” said Habre. The study participants were made up of adults with doctor diagnosed asthma.

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

Dr. Rima Habre has been with USC for five years. Dr. Habre’s expertise lies in air pollution exposure assessment, analyzing patterns of how people get exposed to air pollution across time and space and studying how specific pollutants impact their health.  

Recently Dr. Habre’s work reached the international stage through a documentary, produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, called Something in the Air.  “The producers were very interested in learning more about our latest work around air pollution and asthma – specifically around the latest technologies we are using to better understand the impacts of small particles on a personal level – in children and adults with asthma, and in pregnant women.” Dr. Habre was interviewed about her work around ultrafine particle exposures downwind of major airports and its effects on asthma, as well as her work to understand how children’s personal exposure to air pollution predict their risk of experiencing an asthma attack. Something in the Air will be released this week in Canada, with an international release to be announced.

Airport-related ultrafines affect health differently than traffic-related ultrafine particles

Habre and her team designed this study to test the short-term effects of breathing ultrafine particles by asking study participants to walk in a Los Angeles park located within the known higher levels of UFPs emitted from airplanes and near heavily trafficked roads, and another park farther away from the airport and busy roads with lower levels of UFPs.

The map above shows the two parks where the study took place. The grey shaded area shows the approximate location of the plume of ultrafine particles created by air traffic around LAX, that usually occurs when the winds are blowing steadily from the West.

“In our study, we found that inhaling UFPs led to higher inflammation in the blood in adults with asthma shortly after exposure. However, different inflammation markers responded to aircraft-related versus traffic-related UFPs – both of which are major ultrafine particle sources in dense urban areas. We were able to see these different signals because we managed to overcome the challenge of separating the air pollution mixture into its major sources using sophisticated measurements and modeling techniques,” said Habre.  The pollutants measured by the study included UFP particle number, particle size, black carbon, carbon dioxide, particle-bound polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and ozone.

The significance of Habre’s study is that in such a short time, following regular walking exposure and a higher exposure, they were able to see significant elevation in inflammation systemically, not just in the lungs but in the overall blood circulation. Inflammation is tied to a lot of disease processes; cardiovascular, respiratory, and metabolic. “We don’t know specifically what this inflammation will lead to down the line, but we know that inflammation is generally a bad thing, and will complicate or exacerbate existing conditions. Ideally, we would have liked to have been able to monitor people long-term to see if that inflammation persists or if it goes down after a while but we were not able to do that in this specific study, that’s a future direction of this research I’d like to look at,” said Habre.

When asked what this research means to the overall population, Habre described the current body of research that has found ultrafine particles to be much more toxic than the larger sizes of particulate matter, UFPs are not regulated, and UFPs impact large numbers of people who live in communities surrounding airports.

Ultrafine particulate matter research: future directions

Dr. Habre also leads environmental exposure assessment efforts in multiple research studies being conducted at USC, including the MADRES study of pregnant women and babies and the LA DREAMERs study of children’s health across the life course, and in partnership with other research groups such as the Los Angeles PRISMS Center, a UCLA/USC partnership.  Her work in the Los Angeles PRISMS Center is taking a deeper dive into the different sources of air pollution asthmatic children encounter in their day to day lives in Los Angeles and how it impacts their health.  This study focuses on personal experiences, using Bluetooth-enabled wearable sensors to monitor environmental exposures, location, activity, medications and symptoms, to ultimately generate new information to help predict and prevent asthma attacks. To learn more about the Los Angeles PRISMS Center, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-m72NkwolgU&feature=youtu.be

As she moves forward with her research on the health effects of ultrafine particulate matter in urban areas, Dr. Habre plans to build on her current work by studying how people with asthma are affected, as well as those who are obese, have diabetes, or cardiovascular issues. “I would like to be able to capture a wider variety of sources of ultrafines in urban areas and also be able to monitor individuals for a longer period of time to really understand what happens next. In this study we saw very quick and acute effects, but do people tend to recover after a day? I think the ultimate goal would be to really understand if people living in these high exposure locations, for extended periods of time, and breathing this mixture in regularly are at a significantly higher risk or not,” she said.


For more information on the “Something in the Air” documentary that Dr. Habre’s work is featured in, on the documentary’s website: www.somethingintheair.ca. Once the documentary is released in the United States, USC Environmental Health Centers will publish the release date and viewing information.

Rima Habre, Hui Zhou, Sandrah P. Eckel, Temuulen Enebish, Scott Fruin, Theresa M. Bastain, Edward B. Rappaport, and Frank D Gilliland, 2018. Short-term effects of airport-associated ultrafine particle exposure on lung function and inflammation in adults with asthma. Environment International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2018.05.031

Funding: This study was funded by the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, P30ES007048) pilot program, NIEHS grants 1R01ES023262, 1K22ES022987, 1R01ES027860, and the Hastings Foundation.

NEW RESEARCH: Does air pollution make teens eat fattening foods?

New research from our Center investigators suggests that early exposure to traffic pollution may be linked to unhealthy diet in adolescence.

by Leigh Hopper, USC Media Relations

Our study found that exposure to traffic pollution during childhood makes adolescents more likely to eat foods high in unhealthy trans fats.  (Photo/Courtesy of the South Coast Air Quality Management District)

Could air pollution be making us fat?

A new USC study suggests that exposure to traffic pollution during childhood makes adolescents 34 percent more likely to eat foods high in unhealthy trans fats — regardless of household income, parent education level or proximity to fast-food restaurants. The findings on air pollution and obesity in teens appear in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“Strange as it may seem, we discovered kids in polluted communities ate more fast food than other kids,” said Zhanghua Chen, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and the study’s first author.

Continue reading “NEW RESEARCH: Does air pollution make teens eat fattening foods?”

Environmental Health Leadership Summit 2018

Researchers, staff, and interns from the USC Environmental Health Centers attended the 9th annual Environmental Health Leadership Summit of 2018 on October 18-19 in Heber, CA, a small community in the southern part of the Imperial Valley. The annual summit is hosted by Comite Civico del Valle, an environmental justice organization based in the Brawley, CA. Every year, CCV hosts various researchers, state and local agencies, community members, and community organizations share the air pollution mitigation efforts of all parties involved. The annual event is an opportunity for folks to share their projects and tackle environmental justice issues that affect communities in the Imperial Valley and beyond.

 Air pollution has become a hot topic in the Imperial Valley due to the frequency of dust storms and bad air quality days that affect this agricultural region. Nearby, the Salton Sea has emerged into the spotlight after years of drought and a decrease in water availability has led to much of the shoreline drying out and leaving behind fine, toxic dust.

This year’s focus was on the various air pollution mitigation efforts made possible by the CA assembly bill, AB617 and the various agencies and stakeholders involved. The first day of the Summit consisted of presentations from the California Air Resources Board and from a couple project leaders regarding the establishment of a CAMN (community air monitoring network) in the Imperial Valley.  Presenters also talked about the assembly bill and the process that went into selecting the 10 communities that have become the focal point of the bill. Through a series of workshops, the agency presented attendees with information on topics such as new air monitoring tools, the community engagement aspect of the bill, and data resources among others.

 Day 2 of the Summit was centered around the air monitoring efforts taking place in the Imperial Valley. In the first panel, various health professionals presented on their research projects taking place in communities surrounding the Salton Sea and the effects that this large body of water has on the health of nearby inhabitants, especially children. USC investigator, Dr. Jill Johnston gave a brief presentation on the AIRE study which looks at the respiratory health of children living in the Northern part of the Imperial Valley. Following this presentation, the youth environmental health leadership interns talked about their experiences participating in the program and their efforts in meeting with legislators in Sacramento.

 The rest of the afternoon followed with more panels that discussed air pollution mitigation efforts across the Imperial Valley and in the eastern Coachella Valley. Guests were able to ask questions throughout each session and network with presenters and other attendees during breaks.  

AIRE study staff and student workers ready to talk to attendees about our work.
Dr. Farzan and student workers ready to answer questions.
Community member looking at our pesticide infographic.
Dr. Farzan explains the AIRE study to a community member.
Dr. Farzan is introduced by the mayor of Brawley, Mr. George Nava.
Dr. Johnston presents the AIRE study during the Health Disparities panel.
Dr. Johnston talks about the effects of the drying Salton Sea
The Health Disparities panel answers questions from audience members about their research.

NEW VIDEO: Building environmental health literacy in urban communities

The  Community Engagement Core of the MADRES Environmental Health Disparities Center is pleased to share a video about our work to build environmental health literacy around toxins and health impacts found in commonly used household cleaning products with Latina mothers. The popular education workshops, done in partnership with public health interns from CalStateLA, introduce concepts of environmental health and justice rooted in participants lived experience while providing alternative methods for participants to create their own “Do It Yourself” green cleaning products.

Continue reading “NEW VIDEO: Building environmental health literacy in urban communities”

SCEHSC Seminar Series: “Communicating Air Quality Data and Health Risk to the Public”

The SCEHSC Seminar Series presents

“Communicating Air Quality Data and Health Risk to the Public”

Jo Kay Ghosh, PhD

Health Effects Officer
South Coast Air Quality Management District

Friday, September 9, 2016
11:45 a.m.-1:00 p.m.

Soto Street I Building, Room 116
2001 North Soto Street
Los Angeles, CA 90032

If you would like to attend the FREE seminar, please email jacy@usc.edu

Dr. Jo Kay Ghosh is the Health Effects Officer at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). She earned her doctorate in Epidemiology from the UCLA School of Public Health, with her work on air pollution and birth outcomes. She also conducted post-doctoral research at the USC Department of Preventive Medicine, examining the effects of air pollution on cancer risk. Previously, she worked at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, where she managed the Epidemiology and Research Unit of the Tuberculosis Control Program. 

Continue reading “SCEHSC Seminar Series: “Communicating Air Quality Data and Health Risk to the Public””

AirPollBrain and CEHC Presents: “Perinatal Metal Exposure and Neurodevelopment: Identifying Windows of Susceptibility”

The SCEHSC Seminar Series presents

“Perinatal Metal Exposure and Neurodevelopment: Identifying Windows of Susceptibility”

11:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

AirPollBrain Mini-Symposium: “Air Pollution and Adolescent Brain Development”

12:00 p.m.-1:30 p.m.

Megan Horton, PhD

Assistant Professor
Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Soto Street I Building, Room 116
2001 North Soto Street
Los Angeles, CA 90032

If you would like to attend the FREE seminar, please email jacy@usc.edu

Dr. Horton earned her doctoral degree in Environmental Health Sciences at Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. During her doctoral training, she gained expertise in the development and use of biological markers to measure prenatal and early life exposures to environmental toxicants, focusing mainly on residential exposure to pesticides. Subsequently, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Sergievsky Center for the Epidemiologic Study of Neurologic Diseases. The focus of this postdoc was to explore the use of brain imaging to investigate the impact of prenatal exposure to pesticides and secondhand smoke on neuropsychological and behavioral function throughout childhood. Dr. Horton was recently awarded an NIH career transition award and accepted a position as an Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Her current work combines her experience with biomarker development and neuroimaging to understand the mechanisms of neurodevelopmental toxicity following exposure to chemical mixtures.

Visitor parking at the Soto Street Building is limited. If you are planning to park at the Soto building during the seminar please contact Marissa Jacy (jacy@usc.edu) for more information. If you are a USC employee, please plan to take the free USC shuttle to our seminars whenever possible. Information about the USC shuttle can be found at http://transnet.usc.edu/index.php/bus-map-schedules/.

Air pollution affects lung cancer survival time

Exposure to higher levels of air pollution shortens survival after lung cancer diagnosis

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Exposure to air pollution has many impacts across the lifespan and has now been linked to survival of patients after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Lung cancer has been the most commonly diagnosed cancer over the past several decades. Patterns of lung cancer incidence and mortality have been closely tied to exposure to tobacco smoke across time and place. There is also a growing body of evidence that shows that air pollution exposures are associated with lung cancer incidence and mortality but, since survival times after lung cancer diagnosis can be quite short, few studies have attempted to disentangle the two. In addition, the International agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently classified ambient air pollution as carcinogenic.

“We thought that if ambient air pollution is a carcinogen that can drive lung cancer development, then exposure to air pollution in patients already diagnosed with lung cancer could promote the progression of their disease through the same biological pathways.” said Sandrah Eckel, PhD, assistant professor of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine and lead author of the research. Therefore, Dr. Eckel and colleagues at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California decided to more closely explore the question of whether lung cancer survival times might be affected by air pollution.

The research, published this month in Thorax, shows that the length of time that lung cancer patients live after diagnosis varies depending on their exposures to regional pollution. Researchers found that the median survival for people diagnosed with early stage lung cancers who lived in areas with high levels of regional pollution was approximately 3 years shorter than for people who lived in areas with lower levels of pollution. “We focused on California, since there are a wide range of air pollution levels here and one of the largest and longest running air quality monitoring networks and cancer registry system in the US,” said Eckel.

Dr. Eckel and her team of researchers looked at lung cancer data from over 350,000 patients in the California Cancer Registry who were diagnosed with lung cancer between 1988-2009. From the extensive and detailed dataset, the team assigned air pollution exposure levels based on the average exposure at the patient’s residence at diagnosis. The pollutants that were used included: nitrogen dioxide (NO2, ppb), ozone (O3, ppb), and particulate matter with diameter <10 μm (PM10, mg/m3) and 2.5 μm (PM2.5, mg/m3). “This study is unique in that it looks at another modifiable risk factor, besides smoking, that can impact lung cancer survival after diagnosis. The California Cancer Registry data provided a large, population-based sample of all lung cancer cases diagnosed in California over the last 20 years, minimizing the biases often encountered in other types of study designs,” said Dr. Eckel.

In general, the stage of cancer at diagnosis is a major determinant of survival, with patients diagnosed with earlier stage cancer living longer. As expected, the impacts of air pollution on survival were most evident in patients diagnosed at an early stage, when their cancer was localized to only their lungs. The median survival in patients with localized cancer at diagnosis living in areas with higher levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) was only 2.4 years as compared to 5.7 years in patients living in areas with lower levels of PM2.5. Patients whose cancer had spread to other parts of their bodies had shorter survival times overall and showed little difference in survival time whether they had high or low exposures to air pollution. These patterns of association persisted even after adjusting for numerous socio-demographic characteristics and type of cancer treatment.

The study’s findings are intriguing, but additional research is needed to determine the causality of the association between air pollution and lung cancer survival rates. Even so, these findings suggest that newly diagnosed lung cancer patients might want to consider taking precautions to reduce their own exposures to air pollution. As we continue to see increased emphasis on lung cancer screening, we will see more and more patients diagnosed with lung cancer at early stages and these are the patients that could potentially benefit the most from reduced air pollution exposures.

What can lung cancer patients with a locally diagnosed cancer do to take action that may effectively extend their survival times? Dr. Frank Gilliland, senior investigator on the study said, “In the short-term, common-sense precautions to reduce personal exposure to air pollution exposures include avoidance of places and times with high air pollution levels and using indoor home filtration systems. In the long-term, air quality standards should be evaluated to consider whether they are adequately protecting human health.”

The article, “Air pollution affects lung cancer survival time” by Sandrah P Eckel, Myles Cockburn, Yu-Hsiang Shu, Huiyu Deng, Frederick W Lurmann, Lihua Liu, and Frank D Gilliland. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/thoraxjnl-2015-207927) appears in Thorax, Published Online First (August 4, 2016)

Related links: 
Article
Editorial by Dr. Jamie E. Hart, Harvard
Podcast interview with Dr. Hart

This work was supported by the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (grant 5P30ES007048) funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; the Hastings Foundation; the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program under contract HHSN261201000140C awarded to the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, contract HHSN261201000035C awarded to the University of Southern California and contract HHSN261201000034C awarded to the Public Health Institute; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Program of Cancer Registries, under agreement U58DP003862-01 awarded to the California Department of Public Health.