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.”
Los Angeles County, California is the largest urban oil field in the country and home to thousands of active oil wells in very close proximity to homes, schools and parks. Using state data, this new tools allows you to assess proximity of active or idle wells to your location and see how much oil or gas is produced nearby. Overall, we find that 75% of active wells are within 2500 feet of residential buildings.
The full StoryMap can be viewed here. A slideshow version of the StoryMap can be viewed below.
Building off a recent study, our team of researchers had a study published this week in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). The study, looking at data from 9 communities in the Children’s Health Study can be found here.
Related research published earlier this year (Garcia et al. JAMA 2019) found strong associations between new-onset asthma in children and exposure to air pollutants, specifically NO2 and PM2.5. “We wanted to take these results a step further by estimating answers to ‘What-if’ scenarios, such as ‘What if the observed air quality improvements in the 1990s and early 2000s never happened?’ or ‘What if no one was exposed to more than 20 ppb NO2?’ This approach would provide us with an estimate of what would happen to asthma incidence rates in children given different shift in air pollution exposure,” said Erika Garcia, lead study author and researcher in the department of Preventive Medicine in the Keck School of Medicine.
A new research article published in May 2019 provides an in-depth overview of the study design, protocol, and profile of our Maternal And Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES) pregnancy cohort.
The full text of the article and more information can be found here.
The overarching goal of the “Maternal And Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES)” cohort study is to better understand the increased risk for childhood obesity and maternal obesity outcomes among underserved women and children in Los Angeles.
The burden of childhood and adult obesity disproportionately affects certain racial and ethnic groups and groups with lower income and education levels. These same groups are often disproportionately affected by environmental pollution. Pregnancy is a critical developmental period where maternal environmental exposures and stress may have significant impacts on infant and childhood growth as well as the future health of the mother.
The ongoing MADRES study is a
prospective pregnancy cohort of 1000 women-child pairs in Los Angeles, CA.
Enrollment in the MADRES cohort is initiated prior to 30 weeks gestation from
partner community health clinics in Los Angeles. Cohort participants are
followed through their pregnancies, at birth, and during the infant’s first
year of life through a series of in-person visits with interviewer-administered
questionnaires, anthropometric measurements and biospecimen collection as well
as telephone interviews conducted with the mother.
In addition to describing the study design of the cohort, this newly published study provides an overview of the cohort characteristics for 291 participants who have delivered their infants, out of 523 participants enrolled in the study from November 2015 to October 2018 from four community health clinics in Los Angeles.
“Future results from the MADRES cohort could be used by community organizations, policy makers, health providers, to better understand the risk of chemical exposures during pregnancy as well as the importance of psychosocial stress on important health outcomes in women and children,” said lead author Tracy Bastain.
This work was supported by the Maternal and Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors (MADRES) Center (grant #s P50ES026086, 83615801–0) funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities and the Environmental Protection Agency; the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (grant # P30ES007048) funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the Lifecourse Approach to Developmental Repercussions of Environmental Agents on Metabolic and Respiratory health (LA DREAMERs) (grant #s UH3OD023287) funded by the National Institutes of Health Office of the Director ECHO Program.
Improved air quality in the Los Angeles region is linked to roughly
20 percent fewer new asthma cases in children, according to a USC study that
tracked Southern California children over a 20-year period.
The research expands on the landmark USC Children’s Health
Study, which found that children’s lungs had grown stronger in the
previous two decades and rates of bronchitic symptoms decreased as pollution
declined throughout the region.
“While the findings show a clear benefit of lower air pollution
levels, there must be continued efforts to reduce pollution in our region,”
said first author Erika Garcia, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of
Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We’re
not in a place where we can stop and say, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived’.”
Los Angeles remains the nation’s most-polluted region, but
air quality improvements between 1993 and 2006 cut nitrogen dioxide pollution
by 22 percent and fine particulate matter by 36 percent.
Nitrogen dioxide can cause airway inflammation and airway
hyper-responsiveness. Particulate matter — tiny particles of soot, smoke dust,
etc. — can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause serious health problems.
To assess new-onset cases of asthma, USC scientists used
data from 4,140 children in nine California communities: Alpine, Lake Elsinore,
Lake Gregory, Long Beach, Mira Loma, Riverside, San Dimas, Santa Maria and
Upland. Parents or guardians completed questionnaires regarding their
children’s health. New-onset asthma was defined as a newly reported,
physician-diagnosed case of asthma on an annual questionnaire during follow-up.
Researchers looked at rates of new-onset asthma alongside
air pollution data collected from monitoring stations in each of those
communities during three different periods: 1993-2001, 1996-2004 and 2006-2014.
Using statistical methods, they separately examined four air pollutants and
found that two were associated with reductions in new-onset asthma. They estimated
that the nitrogen dioxide reductions achieved between 1993 and 2006 led to a 20
percent lower rate of asthma, while fine particulate matter reductions led to a
19 percent lower rate.
The findings add to the increasing scientific evidence supporting
the role of air pollution in the development of new cases of asthma. Asthma is
the most common chronic disease in children, affecting about 14 percent of
children around the world, and a major contributing factor to missed time from
school and work.
“This is encouraging news as it shows the number of new
cases of asthma in children can be reduced through improvements in air
quality,” said Kiros Berhane, a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck
School of Medicine of USC and one of the study’s authors. “This is very likely
a direct result of the science-based environmental policies that have been put
In addition to Garcia and Berhane, the study’s other authors
are Talat Islam, Rob McConnell, Robert Urman, Zhanghua Chen and Frank
Gilliland, all of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of
The research was supported by the National Institute of
Environmental Health Sciences (grants P30ES007048, P01ES009581, R01ES021801,
and R01ES025786), the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (grant
R01HL118455), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (grants R826708
and RD831861), and the Hastings Foundation.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.