NEW RESEARCH: Study of natural gas flaring finds high risks to babies

Leigh Hooper, USC News

PRESS COVERAGE: New York Times via Reuters, Houston Chronicle, Environmental Health News

Researchers from USC and UCLA have found that women living near natural gas and oil wells that use flaring to burn off excess gas face a 50% greater risk of premature birth than women with no exposure.

Researchers examining 23,487 live births in Texas found exposure among pregnant women to a high volume of flaring events was associated with 50% higher odds of preterm birth compared with no exposure.
Photo: Shutterstock

“Our study finds that living near flaring is harmful to pregnant women and babies,” said Jill Johnston, an environmental health scientist at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “We have seen a sharp increase in flaring in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale, and this is the first study to explore the potential health impacts.”
Flares, which can burn for weeks at a time, release harmful chemicals such as benzene as well as fine particle pollution, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, heavy metals and black carbon. Several of these combustion-related pollutants are linked to a higher risk of preterm birth and reduced birthweight in other contexts.

The research appears July 15 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The study examined 23,487 live births to women living within the Eagle Ford region between 2012 to 2015. The Eagle Ford Shale geological formation, measuring 50 miles wide and 400 miles long, is one of the most productive oil and gas regions in the country due to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” In a previous study, the research team estimated the area was subject to more than 43,000 flaring events between 2012 and 2016.

Latinas impacted the most by higher flaring numbers

The preterm birth rate was 14% among pregnant women exposed to a high number of flares, researchers found. Babies born prematurely – before the 37th completed week of pregnancy — may suffer complications such as immature lungs, difficulty regulating body temperature, poor feeding and slow weight gain.

The researchers used satellite observations to measure flaring activity because systemic reporting of flaring is lacking. They adjusted for other known risk factors for preterm birth in their analysis, including age, smoking, insurance status and access to prenatal care, and concluded that exposure to a high amount of flaring was associated with 50% higher odds of preterm birth compared with no exposure. A high amount of flaring was defined as 10 or more nightly flare events within 3 miles of the pregnant woman’s home.

“Women who identified as Latina or Hispanic in our study were exposed to more flaring and more likely to see an increased risk of preterm birth, raising environmental justice concerns about the oil and gas boom in south Texas,” said Lara Cushing, an environmental health scientist with the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health who co-led the study with Johnston. “Our study adds to the evidence that oil and gas development is negatively impacting birth outcomes and suggests stricter regulation of the industry is needed.”

Women who lived within 3 miles of a high number of oil and gas wells also had higher odds of a preterm birth than mothers who did not live near wells. Their babies were also born weighing 19.4 grams, or seven ounces, lighter on average. This suggests that, in addition to flaring, other exposures related to oil and gas wells may also be adversely impacting pregnancy, the researchers said.

Flaring is largely unregulated, underreported

The majority (55%) of the women in the study population identified as Latina or Hispanic, and the odds of preterm birth among Hispanic women exposed to high levels of flaring was greater than the corresponding odds among non-Hispanic White women, who made up 37% of the study population. Nearly 60% of women in the study were on public health insurance (Medicaid) and 17% were foreign born.

Amid an oil boom in recent years, the United States has been responsible for the highest number of flares of any country, flaring an estimated 14.1 billion square meters of natural gas in 2018. Eighty percent of flaring is occurring in Texas and in North Dakota shale plays, where much of the U.S. fracking occurs. That said, according to researchers, flaring largely remains underreported and unregulated.

In addition to Johnston and Cushing, other authors of the study include Kate Vavra-Musser, Khang Chau and Meredith Franklin, all of USC.
The study was supported by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Photo credit: iStock

NEW INFOGRAPHIC: The Impacts of Natural Gas on Public Health and the Environment

The Community Engagement Program on Health and Environment has collaborated with longtime partners of T.H.E. Impact Project to produce this infographic that shares science on, and realities that frontline environmental justice communities experience when living, working, and playing near natural gas extraction, production, and distribution processes.

“Important conversations are happening throughout Southern California about our energy future and the climate crisis.  We hope this infographic provides communities with access to key scientific information to engage in improving the environmental health of the region,” said Jill Johnston, assistant professor of preventive medicine and Director of the Community Engagement program.

Click here to find the full length graphic in English and Spanish with associated research article collection and printable PDF handouts.

This infographic brings together a lot of complex information about natural gas and makes it understandable and meaningful to many – especially to those of us whose health is most negatively impacted by air pollution.

Sylvia Betancourt, Director, Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma

We are thankful to have partnered with USC Environmental Health Centers to create this infographic that not only makes a complex system easier to understand, the health studies also help debunk the harmful lies and greenwashing the fossil fuel industry is peddling in our communities.

Taylor Thomas, Research and Policy Analyst, East Yards Communities for Environmental Justice

“For years, natural gas operations have brought harm to communities across the world. For us, in the Inland Empire, we have felt first hand how relying on natural gas for the just transition of the transportation sector endangers us and continues to create the same pattern of environmental injustice. We are excited to continue working in good company with our partners on this issue.”

Andrea Vidaurre, Policy Analyst, Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice

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MADRES Center researchers publish interactive StoryMap highlighting disparities and COVID19

Our team of researchers from our MADRES Environmental Health Disparities Center (MADRES Center) recently published this interactive StoryMap. “Just as we see strong disparities along racial and ethnic lines with environmental exposures, susceptibility and health outcomes, we are increasingly seeing similar patterns emerge with COVID-19. We built this story map to shed light on how these factors overlap and co-exist in MADRES neighborhoods,” said MADRES investigator Rima Habre, ScD.

MADRES participants live in some of the neighborhoods currently most impacted by COVID-19.
Image: MADRES COVID19 StoryMap

Our MADRES Center investigates how disproportionate exposures to environmental contaminants, in conjunction with population susceptibility factors, impacts maternal and child health disparities in Los Angeles, CA.

Preview the StoryMap below or click here for the full experience.

MADRES and COVID-19 StoryMap. Find the full interactive version of this map here.

NEW PUBLICATION: Community engaged participatory youth air monitoring program in urban Los Angeles “A Day in the Life”

The Community Engagement Program on Health and the Environment team of Wendy Gutschow and Jill Johnston, along with partners Zully Juarez (prospective UCLA MURP graduate in 2020), Sandy Navarro (LA Grit Media), Ashley Hernandez (Communities for a Better Environment) have published an article in IJERPH about the program they implemented that incorporated air monitoring and storytelling with youth in environmental justice organizations around the Los Angeles area.

A Day in the Life participants at Communities for a Better Environment learn about air monitoring using AirBeams.
A Day in the Life participants at South Central Youth Leadership Coalition monitor the air front of the AllenCo oil drilling site in South Los Angeles.

From the article:

Air pollution in Southern California does not impact all communities equally; communities of color are disproportionately burdened by poor air quality and more likely to live near industrial facilities and freeways. Government regulatory monitors do not have the spatial resolution to provide air quality information at the neighborhood or personal scale. We describe the A Day in the Life program, an approach to participatory air monitoring that engages youth in collecting data that they can then analyze and use to take action. Academics partnered with Los Angeles-based youth environmental justice organizations to combine personal air monitoring, participatory science, and digital storytelling to build capacity to address local air quality issues. Eighteen youth participants from four different neighborhoods wore portable personal PM2.5 (fine particles <2.5 µm in diameter) monitors for a day in each of their respective communities, documenting and mapping their exposure to PM2.5 during their daily routine. Air monitoring was coupled with photography and videos to document what they experienced over the course of their day. The PM2.5 exposure during the day for participants averaged 10.7 µg/m3, although the range stretched from <1 to 180 µg/m3. One-third of all measurements were taken <300 m from a freeway. Overall, we demonstrate a method to increase local youth-centered understanding of personal exposures, pollution sources, and vulnerability to air quality.

“I enjoyed doing this project because it was a lot of new information for me that directly impacts me as a community member, as well as learning about the way particulate matter affects our daily lives. With all of this new information, I want to educate my community on how harmful these particulates are, and how change should begin with personal choices people make throughout their day.”—CBE Youth, Huntington Park, CA.

To read more of how this program was implemented and the work that the youth, community organizers and staff put into making this happen, click through to read and download the full article here. Read more about the program on the Day in the Life program page here.  

Participants in the Day in the Life program since its inception in 2017 include:

LA Grit Media, South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, Communities for a Better Environment, Promoting Youth Advocacy, and Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement, and Pacoima Beautiful.

The article is open access, available free of change to anyone who would like to download it.

Jill E. Johnston, Zully Juarez, Sandy Navarro, Ashley Hernandez, and Wendy Gutschow. (2020) “Youth Engaged Participatory Air Monitoring: A ‘Day in the Life’ in Urban Environmental Justice Communities.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17(1), 93; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17010093

This work was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (5P30ES007048 and P01ES022845) and the Environmental Protection Agency (83544101).

NEW RESEARCH: Improved air quality leads to fewer kids developing asthma in nation’s most-polluted region

By LEIGH HOPPER, USC

PRESS COVERAGE: National Public Radio, Reuters,

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 findings appear in the May 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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’.”

USC Infographic: Lower air pollution = less asthma
Graphic by Wendy Gutschow
Full study related infographic and printable PDF can be found here.

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 place.”

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 Medicine.

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.

EDITORIAL: New research findings show that children are exposed to lead in the womb


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.

Jill Johnston

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.

Read the full story on The Conversation’s website here.

The research study associated with this editorial can be found here.

A statement regarding this research project and the ongoing work to assure the communities around the lead smelter in Los Angeles are cleaned up can be found on the website of community partner: East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.

Infographic: USC Environmental Health Centers summarizing the research study results from the Truth Fairy Project

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?”