NEWS RELEASE: Research links tobacco smoke and roadway air pollution with childhood obesity

LOS ANGELES — New research from Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) bolsters evidence that exposure to tobacco smoke and near-roadway air pollution contribute to the development of obesity.

The study, to be posted online Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014 in Environmental Health Perspectives, (click here) shows increased weight gain during adolescence in children exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke or near-roadway air pollution, compared to children with no exposure to either of these air pollutants. The study is one of the first to look at the combined effects on body mass index of exposure to both near-roadway air pollution and tobacco smoke. The effects were substantially greater in children exposed to both air pollutant mixtures than to either alone.

“Vehicle miles traveled, exposure to some components of the near-roadway air pollutant mixture, and near roadway residential development have increased across the United States over the last several decades corresponding to the epidemic of childhood obesity,” said Rob McConnell, M.D., professor of preventive medicine, Keck School of Medicine of USC and lead author on the study. “The potential for near-roadway air pollution to be among several factors contributing to the epidemic of obesity merits further investigation.”

The research builds on previous studies showing that exposure to secondhand smoke and particulate air pollution cause heart and lung disease.

Childhood obesity has doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Obese youth are more likely to suffer from health challenges, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, bone and joint problems, social stigmatization and self-esteem problems. Obesity for children is defined by the CDC as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex.

The USC study examined exposure of more than 3,000 children to tobacco smoke during their mothers’ pregnancy and to secondhand smoke, as well as air pollution effects from busy roadways, and looked for associations with body mass index. The children were enrolled at age 10 in the Southern California Children’s Health Study, started in 1992 to study the long-term effects of air pollution on children. The children were followed yearly over an eight-year period through high school graduation at age 18. Most of the children were non-Hispanic white or Hispanic.

The researchers estimated near-roadway pollution exposure, taking into account traffic volume, how close the children lived to roadways and predominant wind direction. At study entry, a parent-completed questionnaire was used to determine lifetime tobacco smoke exposure.

“Further research is needed to determine if our findings can be replicated in other populations,” McConnell said, “and to assess both the potential contribution of combustion sources to the epidemic of obesity and the potential impact of interventions to reduce exposure.”

Funding for the research comes from the National Institutes of Health (grants P01ES022845, P30ES007048, P01ES009581, P01ES011627, P50 CA180905, R01ES016535, R01HD061968 and R03ES014046), the Environmental Protection Agency (grants RD83544101, R826708 and RD831861) and the Hastings Foundation.


McConnell, R., Shen, E., Gilliland, F.D., Jerrett, M., Wolch, J., Chang, C., Lurmann, F., Berhane, K. (2014). A Longitudinal Cohort Study of Body Mass Index and Childhood Exposure to Secondhand Tobacco Smoke and Air Pollution: The Southern California Children’s Health Study. Environmental Health Perspectives. Published online Nov. 12, 2014.


Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-based medical systems in the Los Angeles area. Encompassing academic, research and clinical excellence, the medical system attracts internationally renowned experts who teach and practice at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the region’s first medical school.

For more information, go to

This news release was prepared by USC Health Sciences Public Relations & Marketing and the Division of Environmental Health.

Hong Kong Air Quality Researcher, Simon Ng Visits USC

Simon Ng, Chief Research Officer at Hong Kong-based nonprofit Civic Exchange, visited the Environmental Health Division on November 3 to present and share information on port air pollution surrounding Hong Kong. Civic Exchange is an “independent public policy think tank undertaking research to advance civic education and engage society to shape public policy.” During Ng’s presentation, researchers at USC Environmental Health and community partners were interested to hear about factors that make Hong Kong both similar and quite different compared to the ports of LA and Long Beach. Being surrounded by water on three sides, Hong Kong is greatly impacted by pollution that is generated from ships traveling to ports on either side of the city, not to mention ships that travel directly to Hong Kong’s port. This makes for some unique challenges in that Ng and colleagues at Civic Exchange must work with a wide variety of local and international stakeholders as they seek to reduce port emissions in and around Hong Kong.

Ng and Civic Exchange have published several reports on the public health impacts of ship emissions in the area, a hot topic for cities with large ports around the world. The reports provide a detailed look at the scope of the problem and control options; valuable information for those looking at policy options and government interventions at ports.

In recent years, Ng and Civic Exchange have partnered with the University of Hong Kong Public Health School on developing a website: The Hedley Environmental Index, which quantifies the financial burden that air pollution places on the region around Hong Kong. This unique site gives the viewer a real-time view of the ever increasing factors and costs such as deaths, hospital bed days, doctor visits and total economic loss. When visiting this site, one can also see real-time concentrations of specific pollutants around Hong Kong.

Civic Exchange is collaborating with the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College on a China – Environment project funded by the LUCE foundation which sponsored Simon’s week long activities in Southern California.

CENTER MEMBER RESEARCH: Dr. Heather Volk – Autism and Air Pollution

USC Assistant Professor Heather Volk is on a roll. Dr. Volk recently secured major funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to lead a study that could potentially have implications for the prevention of autism. This research seeks to further explore the role traffic-related air pollution may play in causing autistic traits and cognitive delays in children from birth to 3 years of age. This study comes on the heels of Volk’s most recently published research which focused on the frequency of how a particular genetic risk factor for autism combined with prenatal exposure to air pollution may increase the incidence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Drs. Volk and Rob McConnell (USC professor and air pollution epidemiologist) and colleagues from universities across the country have been awarded more than $2 million by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences over the course of the next four years (July 2014-July 2018) to implement their study entitled “Prospective Evaluation of Air Pollution, Cognition, and Autism from Birth Onward.” This study will combine the cohorts of two multi-year (longitudinal) studies that are being conducted at UC Davis , Kaiser Permanente in Northern California , Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD and Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. See also this USC News article about the study.

The two studies include participants who live near research sites across the country including: multiple counties in southwest Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, northeast Maryland, and people who live within a two hour radius of the San Francisco Bay Area. (MARBLES study and EARLI study)

Dr. Volk explains: “This study looks at the neurodevelopmental outcomes of children whose mothers have had one child with ASD and looks at their early development.” She adds: “Air pollution modeling techniques will be used to measure the pollution levels of kids being followed in these studies across time as well as the levels of air pollution their mothers were exposed to when they were pregnant. “ Mothers who have been exposed to similar pollution will have biomarkers in their blood analyzed for various pollutants related to traffic, including ultrafine particulate matter. Results of this research will aim to identify specific characteristics related to autism that may be caused by pollution that the children and their mothers are exposed to.

“We hope that by studying the relationships between air pollution, autism, and neurodevelopment in several areas of the country where a broad range of air pollution is present we will be able to impact the health and development of children even in highly polluted areas like Southern California,” said Volk.

“Prospective Evaluation of Air Pollution, Cognition, and Autism from Birth Onward” is an NIEHS RO1 grant funded study. Participating investigators include: USC (Heather Volk – PI, Rob McConnell), UC Davis (Irva Hertz-Picciotto), Drexel (Craig J. Newschaffer), Kaiser (Lisa Croen), Johns Hopkins (M. Daniele Fallin), and Duke (Jufeng Zhang).

In addition, on November 10, Dr. Volk, along with Linda Birnbaum, Director of the NIEHS and Leonardo Trasande, M.D., MPP Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Environmental Medicine & Health Policy, NYU School of Medicine will be testifying at a Congressional Briefing hosted by Representative David Price (D-NC). The presentation, “Ensuring a Healthy Start for Every Child: How the Environment Influences Health & Development,” is co-sponsored by Friends of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Thoracic Society, and the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies. Stay tuned for move coverage of this important event.

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.

Dr. Ite Laird-Offringa Gives Lecture about Epigenetics and Lung Cancer Research

The SCEHSC sponsors monthly lectures featuring researchers from USC and other universities that relate to Environmental Health research. On Friday, October 3, Dr. Ite Laird-Offringa, of USC Norris Cancer Center visited the SCEHSC to lecture on “The Promise of Epigenomics to Dissect Human Tissue Function in Health and Disease.”

Dr. Laird-Offringa and her team of researchers are studying the role of DNA methylation and other epigenetic events in the development and progression of lung cancer. During her lecture, Dr. Laird-Offringa pointed out that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United states and world wide, and that the American Cancer Society estimates that 27% of all cancer deaths in the USA in 2014 will be from lung cancer. The long term objective of Dr. Laird’s research is to better understand the epigenetic control of cellular development in both cancerous and normal lung cells and to provide information that will enable lung cancer to be diagnosed earlier and therefore treated sooner. In the majority of instances, lung cancer is diagnosed too late along the continuum of the disease, resulting in high mortality rates.

Several faculty members commented on Dr. Laird-Offringa’s line of research. Dr. Carrie Breton, an assistant professor in the EH Division, explained, “While Dr. Laird’s approach has focused on understanding differences in epigenomic regulation in lung cancer, these same tools are of interest to researchers in Environmental Health. Environmental exposures may cause alterations to the epigenome that then affect downstream health outcomes of interest.”

Professor Ed Avol, organizer of the Center seminar series, noted, “One of the research areas of Center investigators is cancer and the importance of environmental exposures in cancer development. Lung cancer, and the obvious association with respiratory health, provides an ideal opportunity to see how our Center can gain new perspectives from other investigators that might re-frame our research directions.”

In addition giving a lecture, Dr. Laird-Offringa, spent time meeting with EH Division faculty members and researchers. Division research associates who are involved in the SCEHSC Career Development program had dedicated time to dialogue with Dr. Laird-Offringa about her experiences in the field, her career trajectory, and what has brought her the most challenge and reward over the course of her career. Among others she advised postdoctoral fellows to keep an active eye on their publication records: “Not every paper has to be a Cell, Science, or Nature paper; when your findings are only moderately interesting but solidly executed, consider publishing them to create a body of work you can build upon”.

LEARN MORE: For a basic explanation of Epigenetics, check out this short video: Engaging Epigenetics: A Tool for Stakeholder Education

Upcoming SCEHSC sponsored lectures include:

November 7:
“Outcome-based Design of Instruments for Measuring Exposures to Fine and Ultrafine Particles”
Dr. Richard Flagan, McCollum/Corcoran Professor, Depts of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, California Institute of Technology.
2001 N. Soto Street , Los Angeles, CA 90032, SSB 116

December 5:
Dr. W. James Gauderman, Director – Division Of Biostatistics, Dept of Preventive Medicine, USC
(Time and Location are the same as above)

EJSI Summer Institute Culminating Projects and Presentation

On Wednesday July 23 the Environmental Justice Summer Institute drew to a close. The hard work of the student and intern participants was showcased through a presentation at Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas’ 2nd District main office during the Environmental Committee meeting of the Empowerment Congress.

The youth gave a presentation (below) and showcased the videos that they made (below) that summarized their EJSI experiences. Committee members listened intently and engaged in a question/answer session with the youth participants, giving them a chance to speak about what they learned and how they think they might utilize the knowledge and experiences gained during the program. The youth were challenged to articulate not only what they learned, but the lessons they intend on taking away and applying to their lives in the near future.Some of the lessons learned were:

  • With knowledge they have a chance to make a difference.
  • The communities that they live in have higher than average levels of air and noise pollution.
  • All it takes is the effort of one person to make a difference to the environment such as walking to the store instead of having one’s parents drive them down the street.
  • Some who were already interested in environmental justice felt more equipped with knowledge and confidence to take leadership roles among their peers. One participant intends to start an Environmental Justice club at her school.

Prior to the last day of the program, the participants were visited by Dr. Joseph Lyou, President and CEO of the Coalition for Clean Air and board member of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.  Dr. Lyou spoke about the role of community organizations and future opportunities for the students.

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 these blog posts and Resource Page:
Environmental Justice Summer Institute: Youth Workshops
Youth Pollution Monitoring Activities across the Southland
Teaching Environmental Justice through Building Model Cities

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.

by Wendy Gutschow

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.