October 6, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
September 24, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
To my knowledge, no organization in the U.S. has achieved as much using citizen science as the Brawley, California community and environmental justice group Comité Cívico Del Valle.
Comité Cívico, working with a network of academic, governmental, and other partners, has built a community-based air quality monitoring system consisting of 40 monitors spread across the sprawling and dangerously polluted Imperial Valley; the IVAN environmental reporting system, which allows citizens to document and report environmental problems; a task force that follows up on the problems that citizens report, and much more.
The result? Empowered, knowledgeable, and engaged residents who are committed to make their community a better and healthier place, and have the tools to do it.
Last week, Comité Cívico gained a new ally – Leonardo DiCaprio, who announced that his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation will donate $100,000 to install and operate 20 new air monitors to monitor deadly chemical-laden particulate matter blowing from the rapidly drying Salton sea – perhaps the biggest environmental health challenge the region faces.
Also last week, perhaps inspired by Comité Cívico’s successes, the California State Legislature passed a bill, AB 617, which authorizes the deployment of community air monitoring systems in polluted communities across the state.
Knowledge is power, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s support will help empower the residents of the Imperial Valley to fight for one of the most fundamental human rights – clean air to breathe.
To learn more about community-based air monitoring, join members of Comite Civico and dozens of other MFN organizations at the FREE 4th International Conference, and check out the references at the end of this post.
How community air monitoring projects provide a data-driven model for the future (Environmental Defense Fund)
In California’s Imperial Valley, Residents Aren’t Waiting for Government to Track Pollution, Yes Magazine
Advancing Environmental Justice: A New State Regulatory Framework to Abate Community-Level Air Pollution Hotspots and Improve Health Outcomes (Goldman School of Public Policy)
CALIFORNIA’S AB 617: A NEW FRONTIER IN AIR QUALITY MANAGEMENT…IF FUNDED (Center for Clean Air Policy)
August 27, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
Is your city allowing developers to build schools, housing, and day care centers near busy highways? Because of the health risks of living close to a highway can be high, this is a very dangerous practice.
Even in Los Angeles, where California law makes it illegal to build a school within 500 free of a busy highway, and officials warn against building homes and daycare centers within that pollution zone, tens of thousands of homes have been built dangerously close to highways in the last few years.
The health risks of traffic-related air pollution are serious. Traffic-related air pollution is known to cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, and to trigger asthma attacks.
In addition, though causality has not been in many cases been proven, traffic-related air pollution been linked to a number of other health problems in adults, some very serious. Examples include atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, cognitive decline, reduction in brain volume, congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, dementia, cardiovascular diseases, and strokes, high blood pressure, premature death, respiratory disease, and suicide.
In children, traffic-related air pollution has been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression, autism and autism spectrum disorder, birth defects, brain cancer, impulsivity and emotional problems, insulin resistance & diabetes, leukemia, low birth weight, lupus, lung damage and other respiratory problems, mental illness, obesity, preterm birth, and reduced intelligence.
The cause of these problems? Traffic-related air pollution contains dozens of toxins, including particulate matter and nitrogen oxides and as many as 40 other toxins from diesel exhaust, and carbon monoxide, toluene, and benzene from automobiles.
How close is too close? Scientists cannot yet answer that question authoritatively, but there are indications that health risks are very high within 500 feet of a major highway – and even double that distance is not safe.
For example, studies have found increased respiratory health problems in children who live or go to school within 100 meters (~330 feet) of a busy roadway, with the greatest risks appearing in the first 50 meters (~165 feet).
For adults, those living:
close to densely trafficked roads were at a far higher risk of stroke and dementia than those who lived farther away, and
within 1,500 feet of the highway were likely to have 14 percent more C-reactive protein in their blood than those who lived more than a half-mile away. Higher amounts of the protein indicate a higher likelihood of a stroke or heart attack.
Are there things you can do to protect yourself even if you can’t move to a home in a safer location? Yes, the Lancet reports that your government can cut particulate matter in neighboring communities in half by installing noise barriers and vegetation along the highway, and you can reduce the amount that gets into your home by attaching filters to your and air conditioning systems. These measures won’t solve the problem, but they can reduce the levels of air pollution you inhale, and lower your health risks.
You can make your city safer. Protect yourself and your community by educating your public officials on the health risks of near roadway pollution and demand that they put measures in place to protect you and your children.
To learn more about what you can do, come to the free 4th International Moving Forward Network Conference on October 13-14. This is a rare opportunity, so if you would like to help your family and community, sign up today!
For more background on this subject, see these resources:
New evidence of the dangers of living near highways, Boston Globe
Living Near Highways and Air Pollution, American Lung Association
New studies cast dark cloud over air pollution, The Lancet
The invisible hazard afflicting thousands of schools, The Center for Public Integrity
August 5, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
This is an excellent article written by Luis Olmedo and Humberto Lugo of MFN member organization Comite Civico Del Valle, and others. Check it out and consider – could this be a roadmap for your community group?
To learn more, register for the Community-Based Air Monitoring Webinar to be held on Thursday, August 24 from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. EDT
The Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Network: A Model for Community-based Environmental Monitoring for Public Health Action
PDF Version (723 KB)
The Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Network (the Network) is a collaborative group of community, academic, nongovernmental, and government partners designed to fill the need for more detailed data on particulate matter in an area that often exceeds air quality standards. The Network employs a community-based environmental monitoring process in which the community and researchers have specific, well-defined roles as part of an equitable partnership that also includes shared decision-making to determine study direction, plan research protocols, and conduct project activities. The Network is currently producing real-time particulate matter data from 40 low-cost sensors throughout Imperial County, one of the largest community-based air networks in the United States. Establishment of a community-led air network involves engaging community members to be citizen-scientists in the monitoring, siting , and data collection process. Attention to technical issues regarding instrument calibration and validation and electronic transfer and storage of data is also essential. Finally, continued community health improvements will be predicated on facilitating community ownership and sustainability of the network after research funds have been expended. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP1772
Communities and regulatory agencies are discovering the utility of small, low-cost environmental sensors that are able to provide real-time information on air pollution (Jiao et al. 2016; Snyder et al. 2013; Yi et al. 2015). These sensors hold great promise for individuals, communities, schools, and other interested parties by providing timely information that can supplement regulatory data used to reduce toxic exposures and influence environmental health policy and programs. Using these new technologies presents challenges in ensuring scientific validity of the data and visualizing and communicating scientific information in a comprehensible manner.
The Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Network (the Network), one of the largest community-based air monitoring networks in the United States, is an innovative model that addresses these challenges through a community, academic, nongovernmental, and government partnership that integrates knowledge and priorities from community and academic research perspectives. In this community-engaged process, community members play key roles in determining study design, siting and deploying monitors, and data collection. The Network is now producing real-time particulate matter data from 40 low-cost sensors throughout the county.
A Community Affected by Air Pollution
Imperial County in southern California is home to a primarily Latino population (82%) and has some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the nation (U.S. Census 2010). The county is mainly desert and agricultural, with a range of air pollution sources—such as field burning, the U.S.–Mexico border crossing, unpaved roads, and various industrial facilities—that contribute to periods lasting longer than 6 months when Imperial County exceeds the California standard for particulate matter (PM) with an aerodynamic diameter of 10 μm or less (PM10) (CARB 2012). Historically, Imperial far surpasses all other California counties as having the highest rates of both emergency hospital visits and hospitalizations for asthma among school-age children (CEHTP 2017). El Centro, California, located in the Imperial Valley, is the city with the fifth-worst air quality in the U.S. (ALA 2016). Exposure to PM10 is associated with increased respiratory disease, decreased lung function, and asthma attacks in susceptible individuals (Anderson et al. 2012). According to the California Air Resources Board, in 2015, the last year in which data were available, the Salton Sea air basin, where Imperial County is located, had 128 d that exceeded the state standards for PM10(https://www.arb.ca.gov/adam/topfour/topfour1.php). This finding means that, for more than one third of the year, residents may be at risk of breathing outdoor air that exceeds the maximum amount of PM that would not harm public health. Even when air quality is within state standards, the health of the population will likely suffer, as arguably no health threshold level exists for PM; for example, an analysis of daily time series data for the 20 largest U.S. cities for 1987–1994 found no threshold for particulate air pollution on daily mortality (Daniels et al. 2000), and Vaduganathan et al. found that increased levels of PM10, even below the current limits set by the European Union, were associated with excess risk for admissions for acute cardiovascular events (Vaduganathan et al. 2016).
Community Needs for Local-level Air Quality Information
Governmental regulatory air monitors are designed to measure ambient air in communities to ensure that federal and state air-quality standards for the protection of public health are met. However, regulatory monitoring does not have the spatial resolution to provide information to the public in the specific communities where they live, work, and play. Further, regulatory monitors are not designed to report on episodic elevated events (i.e., high-concentration events may be qualified as “exceptional events” and removed from regulatory consideration), which are of concern to communities due to acute health events that occur during peak concentrations.
These limitations play out in Imperial County, where understanding, awareness, and effective response to air pollution trends have been hindered by the fact that there are only five regulatory PM monitors for a county that spans over 4,000 square miles and is home to 175,000 individuals. Residents have noted that these monitors often do not seem to reflect the air quality in their local communities, voiced concerns that the monitoring data are sometimes not displayed during elevated events, and identified the need for more air monitors.
Opportunities with Next Generation Air Sensor Technology
Recent advances in small portable and personal air monitors or sensors, which are low cost in comparison with conventional monitors, potentially may provide higher temporal and spatial resolution of air quality data than currently exists from regulatory networks (Jerrett et al. 2015; Duvall et al. 2016; Han et al. 2017; Jovašević-Stojanović et al. 2015; Volckens et al. 2016). The accessible cost, ease of use, and improving accuracy of these technologies position them to play an important role in efforts by communities and researchers to identify sources and trends in air quality that may inform policies and plans to reduce emissions and exposures. Both personal and community responses to these new data can be important public health actions that may emerge from monitoring.
To address community concerns about air quality, a collaborative of community, academia, nonprofit, and government partners formed the Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project (the Project). Funded by the National Institute for Environmental Health Science’s Research to Action Program, the Project used an innovative approach to facilitate community participation and decision-making throughout the development and deployment of the Network and to address concerns about scientific validity and sustainability.
Project Partnerships and a Community Engagement Structure
A crucial component of our approach was to establish an equitable and inclusive community engagement structure that ensured participation at multiple levels throughout the project by various community representatives. The initial step of identification of study partners occurred naturally through a long-standing relationship between Comite Civico del Valle (CCV), a community-based organization in Imperial County, and the California Environmental Health Tracking Program (CEHTP), a program of the nongovernmental Public Health Institute, in collaboration with the California Department of Public Health. The third main study partner, the Seto research group at University of Washington (UW), was identified through relationships with CEHTP, as were other academic partners affiliated with University of California at Los Angeles and George Washington University, who served in an advisory capacity. Distinct roles for the partnering organizations were established from the start. CEHTP provided epidemiological, community engagement, health education, and project-management expertise. UW provided exposure assessment expertise, equipment customization and assembly, and monitor-operation and validation capabilities. CCV provided local community knowledge and relationships and community outreach and organizing expertise, and CCV was ultimately responsible for interfacing with monitor sites and maintenance of the monitoring network. UCLA provided expertise to the community and academic partners on the health effects of air pollution, and George Washington University provided technical consultation on the monitoring of ambient particles.
The project engaged with residents in Imperial County via the establishment of a Community Steering Committee (CSC), recruitment of community participants to help site monitors, and identification of local sites to serve as hosts for the air monitors. The CSC—composed of local leaders and residents concerned about the environment—worked with the Project staff on all aspects of study design and implementation, provided feedback on data communication, and participated in the development of actions to reduce exposures and pollution sources. Government regulatory agencies (in this case, the local air pollution control agency, the California Environmental Protection Agency (California EPA), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), were engaged through participation on a Technical Team, composed of local government, academic, and other technical experts. The technical team was convened semiannually to provide technical advice and expertise on the exposure assessment methodologies and calibration results. Government agencies were contacted to provide portable reference monitors for co-location studies, to provide technical assistance to communities and the researchers, and to receive feedback on community needs.
Defining the Goals for Community Air Monitoring
Components of establishing a community-based air monitoring network are shown in Figure 1. Because it was essential to have an established research question or surveillance need to guide the Project’s activities, this was determined at the start with partners to ensure responsiveness to community needs. The study partners defined broad goals for the Network that included the ability to use the air monitoring data to inform community members about air quality in real time, as well as to generate data that are appropriate for conducting spatial analysis to identify air pollution hot spots and trends. We also continued to refine the goals by incorporating priorities of the CSC and community participants, determined through individual key informant interviews and group discussions to learn about community air quality information needs, uses, sources, and barriers. In turn, these goals provided guidance as we designed the Network and prepared to share monitoring data with the community. In this manner, the study protocol was developed with significant input from the community partner. Furthermore, at that time, the project partners and CSC helped to develop a project-evaluation plan to assess how well these goals were achieved. The evaluation plan included surveys of CSC members, community participants, and other users of the air monitoring data; web analytics; and key informant interviews of project partners.
Preparing the Network Equipment and Data Collection Infrastructure
The monitor selected for this study, a modified Dylos DC1700 (Dylos Corporation), was tested in the lab and field for limits of detection, responses to particles of varying composition, ability to accurately size particles, and precision between multiple monitors at multiple field sites with different environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity. The Dylos is a light-scattering particle counter, and as such, particle counts were converted to mass concentrations to align with health recommendations that are usually based on the latter. Algorithms to convert counts to mass were developed based on co-location of the instruments with government reference instruments in the region, modeling the relationship between counts and mass and using this relationship to estimate mass concentrations. The monitor system included the Dylos particle sensor with four size bins (>0.5 μm, >1.0 μm, >2.5 μm and >10 μm), temperature and relative humidity sensors, and a microcontroller to allow wireless real-time data transfer to the Internet. The monitor components were housed in a box with a cooling fan to sustain optimal sensor performance under Imperial County’s harsh summer conditions (Figure 2).
Monitors were validated and calibrated with reference monitors. In our case, the California EPA participated by providing access to their Calexico, California, site, where they operate federal reference and federal equivalent methods for measuring PM, as well as co-locating portable Beta-attenuation particulate matter monitors at sites that we selected for our community air monitors. Additionally, data collection and data transfer protocols were established, along with quality control plans. This process included addressing issues such as establishment of data feeds, data averaging over time, and data completion checks, as well as formatting data for display and hosting the Web services that allow the public to view the data in real time.
Designing and Deploying the Network
Monitor siting was accomplished by having community members identify, collect data about, and prioritize potential monitor locations in impacted communities throughout the county. The participants in this prioritization process included the CSC and additional community residents who were recruited for this aspect of the project. To facilitate these community members’ meaningful participation in the monitor siting process, the project team provided basic training in air monitoring science, including explanation of technical criteria (e.g., electrical power availability, wireless connection capability, absence of obstructions, secure location) for monitoring siting. This community-engaged process was used to identify locations for the first 20 monitors. An iterative process was used in which monitoring data from the first set of 20 monitors helped determine sites for the second set. The selection of the second 20 monitor locations was guided by the research staff, with input from the CSC, to ensure that monitors were located in areas where a spatially representative model could be constructed using land use regression techniques (Briggs et al. 1997). CCV played a critical role in recruitment of monitor hosts. CCV staff members were also trained to deploy the monitors and conduct routine maintenance and troubleshooting.
Producing Community-relevant and Accessible Information
Researchers and the community members discussed which air quality measures were most useful and how the data would be visualized and communicated to the public. The CSC was presented with several options for data presentation to determine the most understandable and useful approach. The existing community website and data platform titled Identifying Violations Affecting Neighborhoods (IVAN) was redesigned and built out to include the data from the Network, called IVAN Air Monitoring (IVAN-Imperial.org/air). The Project staff developed messaging about interpreting the data, information on air quality and health, and technical information on the monitors and pollution levels, which is also posted on the IVAN website.
Moving Data to Action
Ultimately, the goal of the Network is to provide data and information to community residents to help them engage in individual and community actions to improve health. CCV has extensive knowledge and expertise in outreach, education, advocacy, and organizing. By involving the CSC and other community residents throughout the Project, CCV was more readily able to engage them in ongoing actions than in the past. To support the deployment and utilization of the Network, the Project team developed a two-phase public health action-planning process in which the CSC and other community participants were trained in community action planning strategies, identified and prioritized public health concerns, and developed action plans to address those concerns. With the completion of the Network, the second phase of public health actions will focus specifically on air quality, which may include actions such as outreach to school communities about air quality and health; devising plans for schools to shelter in place during a poor-air-quality days, especially for students with asthma; sharing data trends with local officials to advocate for regulatory action; and training schools with a community monitor to use a flag system to notify the school community about the current air-quality level.
This Network was designed from the outset to be community owned and operated, which will require that the community has the resources, knowledge, and capacity to sustain it. A critical component of supporting an ongoing network is the operation and maintenance of the monitoring equipment, as well as upgrading of software and hardware as needed. As part of ongoing project activities, CCV staff has already received training and assumed responsibility for monitor installation, as well as in troubleshooting monitor hardware and software issues. Furthermore, although technical expertise from a consultant on retainer can provide periodic review to ensure the scientific accuracy of the project, the Network should not have to rely on external technical infrastructure. For example, project data were initially stored on UW data servers but have now been migrated to a cloud service provider so that ownership of the data and the server software may be transferred to the community before the conclusion of the initial grant. This step is critical to ensure sustainability of the program and accessibility of the data after the grant funding period ends. Finally, a key component of sustainability is the continuation of community action planning and community-training activities. The CSC provides an existing structure through which community members can participate directly in the outreach, dissemination, and use of air monitoring data in the broader community. CCV and the CSC can also play a role in community-member mentoring, so that the next generation is interested and prepared to operate the Network.
Who should financially sustain a community-based air monitoring network? Although the community will own the Network and has an interest in its continued operation, they have limited access to funding streams and few available resources. Government agencies may be motivated to maintain and ensure quality data from such projects, as these data help fulfill their mission to provide useful data for community members and can supplement information from regulatory monitors. One example in California is the California Air Resources Board’s Supplemental Environmental Project Policy (available from a file linked at https://www.arb.ca.gov/enf/seppolicy.htm). This policy “allows community-based projects to be funded from a portion of the penalties received during settlement of enforcement actions.” Policies like these can provide some continued support for air monitoring network sustainability.
Several main themes emerge from this project that can be applied to other settings. First, a clearly defined purpose for monitoring must exist, with an understanding of how data may inform action. Roles and responsibilities of all study partners need to be clear from the onset; if this is done correctly, it will ensure that critical functions are covered and adequately funded, it will manage expectations and avoid miscommunication, and it will identify opportunities for knowledge transfer and capacity building. The community, researchers, and government agencies all have an important role to play, and the project resources should be equitably distributed among them. Scientific information must be presented in an accurate and accessible manner and tailored to the cultural and socioeconomic attributes of the community in question. Data must be understandable and useful for the public to apply in public health campaigns. Next-generation environmental monitors, although relatively easy to install, should not be considered reliable and accurate without rigorous calibration and testing; monitors later may experience technical issues, such as connectivity problems that may affect data completeness. Further, due to dust accumulation on the lens of the particle counter, measurement drift can occur over time; therefore, a regular maintenance schedule is essential. In addition, sustaining a project after dedicated funding ends is difficult; therefore, emphasis on community involvement and training during the project period, as well as novel fundraising and interest from regulatory agencies, can ensure that the project continues to collect useful data into the future.
Current availability of real-time and neighborhood-scale data on PM levels can be used as an agent of change. Residents are now equipped with data that they can use to better identify when and where residents are safe outside; to change personal behaviors to reduce exposures; and to advocate for policy changes that more aggressively reduce PM sources. Community engagement and uses of citizen science are becoming more common in influencing public health practice (Den Broeder et al. 2016). In Imperial County, we have emphasized the importance of the development of a sustainable air-monitoring network that is community owned and operated and producing data that are valid for community and traditional research. The project has increased community knowledge and capacity about the process required to set up and maintain monitors, and community partners are now empowered to initiate and collect air data for themselves. With this new information, understanding, and capacity, the community is better prepared to engage and collaborate with government around air monitoring and policy than in the past. Increased availability of actionable independent data and technical capacity to operate the hardware and software network components allow residents to have greater control over their lives and enhance the health of their community members.
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01ES022722. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.
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June 10, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
As the Moving Forward Network members that do air pollution monitoring know from on-the-ground experience, EPA regulatory air monitors may show an area to have low levels of particulate matter from diesel exhaust and other air pollution when in fact, nearby hot spots can have high and dangerous levls of air pollution.
For example, while the city’s only EPA regulatory monitor showed air was relatively clean, monitoring by the Diesel Health Project around the BNSF Argentine Rail Yard in Kansas City, Kansas revealed dangerous levels of elemental carbon (an indicator of Diesel Exhaust pollution) in nearby resident’s yards, very likely from a nearby locomotive maintenance yard at which as many as 50 locomotives at a time, many running, await load testing.
Currently, measuring air pollution in overburdened neighborhoods at a high enough level of granularity to comprehensively identify hot spots is very difficult and expensive, and beyond the capabilities of most environmental justice and other community organizations.
However, research published this week shows how this can be done – and that the results are of great value. A study carried out by MFN member West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), the Environmental Defense Fund, Aclima, and the University of Texas at Austin using data collected by Google Street View cars produced findings that were concerning and surprising.
Most significantly, the data shows pollution variations within single blocks in Oakland of as high as 5X, and revealed hotspots that were often very persistent and stable.
The wide range of pollution levels and the persistence of hotspots tells us something else – in many cases workers and residents are being exposed to much higher levels of pollution and hence higher health risks than they or anyone else knows. We need to build on this research to develop the capability of community-based groups to conduct this level of monitoring in overburdened neighborhoods throughout the U.S. There are children growing up in these neighborhoods who will sooner or later suffer from underdeveloped lungs, asthma, heart disease, cancer, and other health problems. The sooner we identify and clean up these hot spots, the more people we can save from air pollution’s health effects, misery, and in some cases, premature death.
To learn more, view the excellent video with commentary by WOEIP founders Margaret Gordon and Brian Beveridge or read the news articles linked below. For a deeper dive, click the last link to read the entire journal article.
Google shares Street View pollution maps, Left Lane News
Tracking Air Quality Block By Block, California Healthline
High-Resolution Air Pollution Mapping with Google Street View Cars: Exploiting Big Data, (complete study) Environmental Science and Technology
March 29, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
The excellent article below, published with the permission of the authors, makes a strong case that exposure to particulate matter may cause one in five cases of dementia, and includes links to lots of additional information.
The article doesn’t focus on the sources of particulate matter or the fact that diesel particulate matter is particularly dangerous, since it typically includes over 40 toxins. For more on that subject, see Overview: Diesel Exhaust and Health, by the California Air Resources Board.
Caleb Finch, University of Southern California and Jiu-Chiuan Chen, University of Southern California
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disease that eventually strips sufferers of their ability to remember, communicate and live independently. By 2050, it is projected to affect nearly 14 million Americans and their families, with an economic cost of one trillion dollars – more than the estimated combined total for treating heart disease and cancer.
Of the leading causes of death in America, Alzheimer’s disease is the only one that we currently cannot prevent, cure or even stall. Our latest research seeks to change this situation by providing a better understanding of the environmental causes and mechanisms behind the disease.
Our findings lead us to conclude that outdoor air pollution, in the form of tiny particles released from power plants and automobiles that seep into our lungs and blood, could nearly double the dementia risk in older women. If our results are applicable to the general population, fine particulate pollution in the ambient air may be responsible for about one out of every five cases of dementia.
This study, the first to combine human epidemiologic investigation with animal experiments, adds to a growing body of research from around the world that links air pollution to dementia. It also provides the first scientific evidence that a critical Alzheimer’s risk gene, APOE4, interacts with air particles to accelerate brain aging.
Where there’s smoke
Previous research at the University of Southern California has already established that air pollution accelerates the risk of having a heart attack. Based on this work, we established the AirPollBrain Group to examine whether and how exposure to fine particulate matter – known as PM2.5 because the particles measure 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter – impacts the aging brain.
We designed this study to answer three broad questions. First, we wanted to know whether older people living in locations with higher levels of outdoor PM2.5 have an increased risk for cognitive impairment, especially dementia. We also wanted to know whether people who carry the high-risk gene for Alzheimer’s disease, APOE4, are more sensitive to the damage potentially caused by long-term exposure to PM2.5 in the air.
Our third question was whether similar findings could be observed with controlled exposures to particles in mice modified to carry human Alzheimer’s disease genes. If we found similar effects in mice, it could shed light on possible mechanisms underlying what is happening in human brains.
We focused on older women and female mice because APOE4 confers a greater Alzheimer’s disease risk in women than in men.
For the human epidemiologic study component, we collaborated with investigators from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study, or WHIMS, which followed a large group of older women nationwide, starting in the late 1990s when these women were 65 to 79 years old but did not have dementia or any significant cognitive impairment.
We combined EPA monitoring data and air quality simulations to build a mathematical model that allowed us to estimate the everyday outdoor PM2.5 level in various locations where these women lived from 1999 through 2010. Because the WHIMS followed its study participants very closely, we were able to gather detailed information on other factors that may affect an individual’s risk for dementia, such as smoking, exercise, body mass index, hormone therapy and other clinical risk factors like diabetes and heart disease. This allowed us to account for these other factors and better isolate the effects of air pollution exposure.
We found that women exposed to higher levels of PM2.5 had faster rates of cognitive decline and a higher risk of developing dementia. Older women living in places where PM2.5 levels exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard had an 81 percent greater risk of global cognitive decline and were 92 percent more likely to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s. This environmental risk raised by long-term PM2.5 exposure was two to three times higher among older women with two copies of the APOE4 gene, compared with women who had only the background genetic risk with no APOE4 gene.
For the laboratory studies, we exposed female mice with Alzheimer genes to nano-sized air pollution for 15 weeks. The air particle collection technology, invented by our colleague Constantinos Sioutas from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, collects air particles from the edge of USC’s campus as a representative air sample from urban areas.
The experimental data showed that mice systematically exposed to this particulate matter accumulated larger deposits of proteins called beta-amyloid in their brains. In humans, beta-amyloid is considered as a pathological driver of neurodegeneration and is a major target of therapeutic interventions to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s or slow its progress. Similar to our epidemiologic observation in older women, these effects were stronger for APOE4 female mice, which are predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease.
Our future studies will look at whether these findings also apply to men, and whether any drugs under development may provide protection against air pollution exposure. More work is also needed to confirm a causal relationship and to understand how air pollution enters and harms the brain.
Brain aging from exposure to air pollution may start at development, so we also want to look at early life exposure to air pollution in relation to Alzheimer’s disease. We already know that obesity and diabetes are Alzheimer’s risk factors. We also know that children who live closer to freeways tend to be more obese, an effect that is compounded if adults in the household are smokers.
Based on existing mouse models, one would predict that developmental exposure to air pollution could increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease. This is an important piece of the scientific puzzle that we’d like to better understand.
Air pollution, public health and policies
Air pollution knows no borders. This gives our study global implications that should be taken seriously by policymakers and public health officials.
The Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to develop National Ambient Air Quality Standards that provide an adequate margin of safety to protect sensitive populations, such as children and the elderly. In 2012 the EPA tightened the U.S. standard for PM2.5. Nonetheless, in 2015 nearly 24 million people lived in counties that still had unhealthful year-round levels of particle pollution, and over 41 million lived in counties that experienced short-term pollution spikes.
Recent studies have shown that the prevalence of dementia in the United States declined between 2000 and 2012. However, we don’t know whether this trend is connected to air pollution regulations, or if exposures to lower levels of PM2.5 in recent years still pose some degree of long-term threat to older Americans, especially those at risk for dementia.
If long-term PM2.5 exposure indeed increases the risk for dementia, this would imply that public health organizations are underestimating the already large disease burden and health care costs associated with air pollution. For instance, the World Health Organization’s latest assessment of the global burden of disease caused by PM2.5 does not include dementia. Air pollution levels are much higher in India, China and many other developing nations than U.S. levels.
Similarly, EPA has estimated that the Clean Air Act will provide almost US$2 trillion in benefits between 1990 and 2020, much of it from reduced deaths and illnesses. If there is a connection between particulate pollution and dementia, the Clean Air Act may be providing even larger benefits than EPA’s estimate.
The U.S. National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease, which was mandated by legislation enacted in 2011, aims to prevent or effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. We believe any measures that undermine EPA’s operation or loosen clear air regulations will have unintended consequences that will make it challenging to meet this goal.
Caleb Finch, University Professor, Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, University of Southern California and Jiu-Chiuan Chen, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
March 2, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
A new study adds to the weight of evidence linking premature births to particulate matter air pollution (PM) – a cautionary note for those who live near highways and other sources PM. This research, by Swedish, British, and American scientists, links almost 1 in 5 premature births to fine PM air pollution.
Research published last year by researchers from NYU and other universities estimates the costs of premature births in the U.S. linked to air pollution at over $4 billion per year, and emphasizes that “considerable health and economic benefits could be achieved through environmental regulatory interventions that reduce PM2.5 exposure in pregnancy.”
The primary sources of PM air pollution in the U.S. are traffic-related air pollution, particularly from diesel engines, burning of biomass, and coal power plants.Read More›
February 20, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
Information is power, and no community organization has done more to create power for the people than MFN member Comite Civico del Valle (CCV), headquartered in the Imperial Valley of Southern California. Among its many accomplishments, Comite Civico, founded 30 years ago, has worked with partners to set up a sophisticated air monitoring system and a world-class online environmental reporting system that provides detailed and actionable information on environmental health hazards.
More importantly, these tools provide residents of the Imperial Valley the tools to take matters into their own hands – to identify, report, and document environmental problems, and to ensure that their governmental representatives take appropriate action. For the latest news on CCV’s work, check out the excellent article in last week’s issue of Yes! Magazine, a nonprofit, independent, reader-supported publication, or the background below.
In California’s Imperial Valley, Residents Aren’t Waiting for Government to Track Pollution, Yes! Magazine
“It is Up to Us”: Citizen Science in Imperial County, Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert CommitteeDesert Report
February 1, 2017 by Eric Kirkendall
Image: USC School of Gerontology
Scientists at the University of Southern California published research yesterday that shows that Particulate Matter air pollution from power plants and vehicles may greatly increase the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia. Their work indicates that air pollution may be responsible for over 20 percent of dementia cases. Their study was published in the Nature journal Translational Psychiatry.
Over 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimers Disease, and it is estimated that almost 14 million people will be afflicted by 2050. To learn more, see the video or references below.
The USC Research
Air pollution linked to Alzheimer’s disease, study says, Press Enterprise
Air pollution may lead to dementia in older women, USC School of Gerontology
Diesel exhaust linked to magnetic particles in our brains and Alzheimer’s Disease, Moving Forward Network
2016 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures, Alzheimers and Dementia Journal
December 18, 2016 by Eric Kirkendall
A European study of 16,000 people found that air pollution impairs the function of blood vessels in the lungs, and that exercise could cause lung damage and heart failure. The lead scientist in the study, cardiologist Jean-Francois Argacha said: “Our main advice is to limit physical activities during heavy air pollution.”
Despite numerous studies showing strong links between air pollution and cardiovascular disease, this study is the first to demonstrate the effects of air pollution on pulmonary vascular function.
Our main advice is to limit physical activities during heavy air pollution.
For more information, check out the press release from the European Society of Cardiology, or the two other linked articles, provided for background.
Air pollution impairs function of blood vessels in lungs, European Society of Cardiology
Air Pollution and Heart Disease, Stroke, American Heart Association
How Air Pollution Contributes to Heart Disease, Physicians for Social Responsibility