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.

USC Researchers to do a Pilot Study on LAX Air Pollution and Asthma

We are announcing the launch of a pilot study looking at how exposure to ultrafine particles from plane landings at LAX affects lung function and inflammation in adults with asthma. Our official launch date is May 18th, for a duration of two months.

Those interested in participating, please contact Dr. Rima Habre to obtain information. Click on the images below to read more…

USC Researchers to do a New Study on LAX Air Pollution and Asthma

We are announcing the launch of a pilot study looking at how exposure to ultrafine particles from plane landings at LAX affects lung function and inflammation in adults with asthma. Our official launch date is November 15th, for an initial one month phase.

Those interested in participating, please contact Dr. Rima Habre to obtain information. Click on the images below to read more…

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Youth Pollution Monitoring Activities across the Southland

In communities around the Southland this summer and past spring, students have been learning about air pollution and doing their own hands-on monitoring. These areas included Alhambra, Hacienda Heights, Boyle Heights, Lennox, Inglewood, and more. Outreach Program coordinator Carla Truax visited several high schools and community organizations to give a presentation on “Air Pollution 101,” USC’s latest scientific research findings, and demonstrate air monitoring equipment for the students. The students then came up with creative monitoring projects of their own.

At Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, the students were part of a youth team from a group called Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ). After monitoring around their school, which is located adjacent to the I-10 Freeway, the students then presented their research at a “Family Empowerment Festival” organized by AAAJ at Cal State Los Angeles in May.

Air pollution is measured on a overpass of the 10 freeway near Mark Keppel High School.

Last year, another group of students from Mark Keppel High School did a monitoring project with USC, interviewed experts, and created this video:

At Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights, students in the Advanced Environmental Studies class learned about the health risks of exposure to air pollution, and how to assess the numbers of ultrafine particles near their school using monitoring devices.  They also learned about the studies conducted by the environmental health sciences centers based at USC about the health effects of living or going to school near a busy freeway. Wilson High is located just a few feet from the 60 Freeway. These high school visits were organized by partner organization Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance.

Legacy L.A. is a non-profit organization focused on youth and leadership development which offers academic support to students in Boyle Heights (on the East side of LA), in particular to students who live at Ramona Gardens. After a training session by USC on the health effects of air pollution, the youth talked about some critical issues they are working on: access to healthy food, environmental justice, and safe walkable streets in their community. The group also had questions about creating a buffer zone to help mitigate the effects of traffic emissions from the freeway that borders their housing development and a newly constructed playground. Using what they had learned, the youth developed an action plan for addressing the pollution issues in their community and presented it at a town hall meeting for key policy and decision makers in June. The meeting was covered by Boyle Heights Beat.

Environmental Justice Summer Institute (EJSI) is a program focused on educating, engaging, and empowering youth to be environmental health leaders in their neighborhoods of Inglewood, Hawthorne, and Lennox. The youth developed hands-on experience with two days of ultrafine particle pollution and noise monitoring at 14 locations around their neighborhoods. The students chose locations for monitoring and mapped them before setting out for their field work. The selected locations included places they live, learn, and hang out, such as parks, schools, and homes.  These areas are in the flyover path for jets landing at LAX airport.

Students participating in the EJSI wrote about their monitoring experiences:

“As we spent two sessions going around our community measuring pollution, the thought that kept stirring in my mind was that there is not much being done to keep our homes safe. I only wonder how our community will be if we do not take action, so I think people should be more aware of the dangers around them.” –Vanessa Sanchez

Prior to measuring pollution, students mapped healthy and unhealthy spaces in their communities to identify where they wanted to take pollution measurements.

A sound level meter is used to measure the number of decibels from the airplane.

“While doing the air and noise pollution, I was surprised a few times by the measurement and the locations. I never thought our communities were that polluted by these moving engines. What surprised me more was the bus pollution measurement was quite low. But some locations were heavily polluted and can have a negative effect on people’s health.” –Khanh Nguyen

“My emotion about knowing the air pollution was “surprise!” because I didn’t know that our air was not as clean as it should be. For example the beach has 4,000 pt/cc [number of particles per cubic centimeter] of ultrafine particles on average. I asked myself why doesn’t the city enjoy that kind of healthy air? All the data gathered concerned me about the environment and it made me see that we have a problem.” –Abigail Diaz
[Note: the average levels of ultrafine particles in Lennox and Inglewood was 45,000 pt/cc.]

A P-Trak monitor is used to measure the ultrafine particles.

“My thoughts and emotions weren’t thrilled because I was expecting to get the result that we got because I know the community. The only one I was surprised was at the beach because it was really low. It was 2,000-6,000 (pt/cc).” –Eder Juarez

The Environmental Justice Summer Institute program is a partnership of USC Environmental Health, Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance (APIOPA), From Lot to Spot (FLTS), and Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI). Learn more about the institute in this post.

The EJSI’s next project is creating a student-produced video, so stay tuned!

USC Environmental Health gratefully thanks the NIEHS, U.S. EPA, The Kresge Foundation and The
California Wellness Foundation for their combined support which has allowed the Centers’ participation in these efforts to educate youth about air pollution.

NEWS RELEASE: Research raises new concerns about air pollution impacts at Los Angeles International Airport

Study shows air quality from ultrafine particles extends further than demonstrated by previous research

PRESS: Los Angeles Times , Daily Breeze

For more news coverage, click over to our summary on Storify.

LOS ANGELES — For the first time, research conducted by scientists at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) shows that airliner activity at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) worsens air quality over a far larger area than previously assumed.

The study, published May 29, 2014, in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T) and conducted with University of Washington (UW) researchers, found a doubling of ultrafine particle number concentrations extended east more than 10 miles downwind from the airport boundary over a 20-square mile area, encompassing communities including Lennox, Westmont, parts of South L.A., Hawthorne and Inglewood, and, in certain wind conditions, areas south of LAX.

“Our research shows that airport impacts extend more than 5 times further than previously assumed,” said Scott Fruin, D. Env., lead researcher and assistant  professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.  “Effects from planes that are landing appear to play a major role in this large area of impact.”

To put this large area of impact into perspective, the researchers calculated that one-quarter to one-half of the entire L.A. County freeway system produces an equivalent increase in ultrafine particle numbers on a concentration-weighted basis.

Graphic depicting ultrafine particle increase downwind of LAX relative to urban background air quality

“LAX may be as important to L.A.’s air quality as the freeway system,” said Fruin. “The impact area is large, and the airport is busy most hours of the day. That makes it uniquely hard for people to avoid the effects of air pollution in affected areas.”

Most previous research on the air quality impacts of airports focused on measuring air quality near where jet takeoffs occur. Takeoffs produce immense plumes of exhaust but only intermittently, and pollution concentrations downwind have been observed to fall off rapidly with distance. The assumption has been that total airport impacts also fall off rapidly with distance. The new research finds that this assumption is wrong.

The study found that concentrations of ultrafine particles were more than double over 20 square miles compared to background concentrations in nearby areas outside the area of LAX impact. Also, ultrafine particle number concentrations four times higher than background extended a distance of six miles.

“Given the existing concern about the possible health effects of urban ultrafine particle levels, living in an area with two to four times the average L.A. levels of ultrafine particles is of high public health concern,” said first author Neelakshi Hudda, Ph.D., research associate in preventive medicine at the Keck School.

Ultrafine particles are currently unregulated, but are of concern because they appear to be more toxic than larger particles on an equal mass basis in animal and cellular studies, and because they appear able to enter the bloodstream, unlike large particles that lodge in the lungs.

The research team used vehicles equipped with special measurement devices to capture data not available using traditional fixed monitors. The team was able to take moving measurements for more than 5 hours under consistent wind conditions to fully capture the extent of the impact boundaries.

“Other airports generally have less steady wind directions, which would make these measurements more difficult,” said Hudda. “Similar impacts are probably happening, but their location likely shifts more rapidly than in Los Angeles.”

“The on-shore westerly winds cause this impact regularly in communities east of LAX, because the impact’s location corresponds to the wind direction,” Hudda added. “In the winter months, when the winds were different, impacts were measured south of the airport during northerly winds.”

The research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

UW researchers included Tim Larson, Ph.D. and Tim Gould, Ph.D. in the Department of Civil Engineering, and Kris Hartin, Ph.D. in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

Hudda, N., Gould, T., Hartin, K. Larson, T.V., and Fruin, S. A. (2014). Environmental Science and Technology, Published online May 29, 2014; dx.doi.org/10.1021/es5001566

ABOUT KECK MEDICINE OF USC

Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-owned academic medical centers in the Los Angeles area. Encompassing academic, research and clinical entities, it consists of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the region’s first medical school; the renowned USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the first comprehensive cancer centers established in the United States; the USC Care Medical Group, the medical faculty practice; the Keck Medical Center of USC, which includes two acute care hospitals: 401-licensed bed Keck Hospital of USC and 60-licensed bed USC Norris Cancer Hospital; and USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, a 158-licensed bed community hospital. It also includes outpatient facilities in Beverly Hills, downtown Los Angeles, La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena, and the USC University Park Campus. USC faculty physicians and Keck School of Medicine departments also have practices throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. The Keck Medicine of USC world-class medical facilities are staffed by nearly 600 physicians who are faculty at the renowned Keck School of Medicine of USC and part of USC Care Medical Group. They are not only clinicians, but cutting-edge researchers, leading professors and active contributors to national and international professional medical societies and associations. For more information, go to www.keckmedicine.org/beyond

NEWS  RELEASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Contact: Leslie Ridgeway at (323) 442-2823 or lridgewa@usc.edu
For a copy of the study, contact Environmental Science and Technology at (phone or email)

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