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 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
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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.

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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.
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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.

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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. 

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