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Landmark study finds pollution's health effects cumulative, long-lasting

Posted - Sep. 9, 2004 at 1:20 p.m.



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Sep. 9--Children who grow up in smoggy Southern California neighborhoods have underdeveloped lungs, which puts them at risk of illness and premature death as adults, a landmark study published today says.

Researchers at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine spent eight years tracking how exposure to air pollution affected the respiratory health of 1,759 children from 12 Southern California communities, including Lancaster, Santa Monica, Long Beach and Riverside.

The results of the Children's Health Study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, paint a troubling picture. Researchers found that about 8 percent of 18-year-olds had lung capacity less than 80 percent of normal, compared with about 1.5 percent of those in communities with the least pollution.

"This is one of the strongest bodies of evidence that I've ever seen showing the harm to our children's health," said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"And it's not just a temporary health impact from one smoggy day or one smoggy week but a sustained health impact over pretty much the entire period of one's growing into adulthood."

The research was conducted from 1993 to 2001 in communities around Los Angeles, some with high levels of smog and some not. Researchers annually tested the lung capacity of children as they aged from 10 to 18, a period when lungs grow substantially and reach their full capacity.

At the same time, they collected data on several common pollutants spewed by car and truck exhaust pipes, factories and power plants in each community. Researchers then correlated the students' lung health measurements with levels of air pollutants monitored in the communities.

While ozone, a major component of smog, did not appear to affect lung capacity, researchers linked reduced lung function to high levels of nitrogen dioxide, nitric acid and carbon contained in tiny particles of soot.

"These are pollutants that all derive from vehicle emissions and the combustion of fossil fuels," said W. James Gauderman, one of the lead authors of the study. Researchers also found:

--Children who breathed the dirtiest air had less lung capacity as adults and the potential for serious health problems later.

--Lung function can improve if children move to a community with cleaner air.

--Children who live in smoggy areas and are active outdoors develop asthma more often than children in less smoggy areas.

--Children who suffer from asthma get sicker when exposed to high levels of vehicle pollution.

--Children develop more respiratory problems and miss school more often when smog levels are high. That interferes with a child's education and lessens per-pupil funding for schools.

"When we began the study 10 years ago, we had no idea we would find effects on the lung this serious," said Dr. John Peters, director of the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center and senior author of the study.

Gauderman noted that children or young adults who catch a cold might suffer wheezing or other respiratory distress and might take longer to recover. He also found that in the long run, poor lung function is second only to smoking as a risk factor for death.

The results are similar to findings announced four years ago but go beyond them in showing that pollution's effects are cumulative, Gauderman said. He and his colleagues are continuing to follow the teens to see whether any of them develop lung-related health problems.

John Bachmann, associate director of science policy in the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Office, said the "very well-conducted study" improves on earlier work by studying a mix of common pollutants rather than one and by including some not routinely measured, such as carbon particles.

Clean-air advocates said the study should prompt Southern California policy-makers to take a hard look at transportation, including plans to increase the diesel-heavy shipping ports, air ports and freeways.

"There are some serious decisions that elected officials and policy makers will have to grapple with and that means factoring public health into decision-making for the region," said Todd Campbell, policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air.

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