Tag: Division of Environmental Health

Announcing the new MADRES Center Pilot Projects Program

The NIH-funded Maternal And Developmental Risks from Environmental and Social Stressors Center of Excellence on Environmental Health Disparities Research (MADRES, madres.usc.edu), based at the Department of Preventive Medicine, is pleased to announce its Pilot Projects Program, supporting one-year research projects that aim to address scientific gaps in our understanding of the unequal burden of adverse environmental health impacts in susceptible communities.

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Effects of West Coast wildfires go beyond evacuations and air quality

USC experts explain why the worst wildfires in California’s history are just a preview of climate change’s eventual impact on our everyday lives.

San Francisco California, USA – September 9, 2020: The sky across California darkened and The sky across California darkened and turned orange in September as smoke from many wildfires across the state created a massive smoke cloud changing the sunlight and air quality. (Photo/Jason Doiy, iStock)

While the continuing West Coast wildfires have forced people to evacuate homes, the dirty air is trapping others indoors, impacting mood and exposing people to toxic particles. What’s more, rainfall hitting charred areas could trigger landslides.

And of course, all of this is happening during the coronavirus pandemic.

Norbert Schwarz, Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Marshall School of Business and an expert in mood, judgment and risk perception, said there’s a reason behind people’s sense of impending doom.

“The weird color of the sky — from orange to bloody red to oddly green — is upsetting because it drives home that the threat is close,” he said. “It isn’t burning somewhere far away. It is right here, and it is affecting you. Moreover, you can’t escape it because it is in the air you breathe. It surrounds you, and it can seep into your house. That’s very different from watching wildfires on TV or ‘knowing’ about climate change. It makes it palpable, local and real.”

Anxiety and depression for most individuals is already its peak, as pandemic-related adjustments to distancing from relatives and friends and job losses have been psychologically daunting.

“The orange skies resulting from the fires is another adjustment that we have been forced to make over the past few weeks,” said April Thames, a USC Dornsife associate professor of psychology and psychiatry. “The dangerous air quality creates another risk in addition to COVID-19. Being stuck indoors with the orange and gray smoky skies poses an even greater risk for feelings of despair, hopelessness and depressed mood.”

West Coast wildfires lead to increasingly unhealthy air

The plume of smoke casting a pall over much of California is spreading eastward across the country. It contains chemical carcinogens, as well as odor-free toxic gases that include carbon monoxide, according to G. K. Surya Prakash, a USC Dornsife professor and holder of the George A. and Judith A. Olah Nobel Laureate Chair in Hydrocarbon Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry.

“The particles in the 2.5 micron range are the most damaging to the respiratory system, affecting the lungs and the heart as well. They are also major irritants to the eyes,” said Prakash, director of the Loker Hydrocarbon Research Institute.

The weird color of the sky is upsetting because it drives home that the threat is close.

Norbert Schwarz

Ed Avol, a lifelong runner and air pollution expert who heads the Division of Environmental Health at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, said when the air outside is horrible, it’s best to exercise indoors.

“You can improve indoor air quality by closing all doors and windows and placing a damp towel on the windowsill or door crack where air leaks blow into the house. Think about how to slow down your inhalation rate — less intense running or cycling, more relaxed walking or yoga. Try to find alternatives to get some exercise without overexposing your lungs and body to the smoke and pollution.”

He also notes that your COVID-19 face mask could serve double duty: “Your COVID mask should provide some protection. An actual N95 or dust nuisance mask can do a pretty good job of protecting you from inhaling small particles and ash. Bandanas are not especially effective at stopping smoke, and single-layer cloth masks may only stop a small percentage of incoming smoke.”

Even after the fires end, danger looms in hillside communities

With the winter rainy season coming, we should get a break from tinderbox conditions fueling the fires and filling the sky with smoke. But it comes with a tradeoff.

“We will only have a brief moment to catch our breath before winter rains begin to fall on the charred hillsides, producing the kinds of debris flows that devastated Montecito in January 2018,” said Josh West, an associate professor of geology at USC Dornsife and an expert in post-fire landslides, floods and debris flows that can occur during winter storms.

“With vegetation gone and the soil properties changed by the fires, rainwater no longer sinks into the ground as easily,” he added. “Instead, it builds up in the soil, eventually making a muddy mess that slides downhill. As the resulting debris flows travel downhill, they get bigger and bigger, with enough power to pick up large boulders and send them cascading into our hillside communities.

“It’s hard to predict just how bad it will be, but with more steep terrain burning this year, there’s a greater chance that we will see damaging landslides in some areas.”

— Leigh Hopper

Living near natural gas flaring poses health risks for pregnant women and babies

Flare stack at petroleum refinery in Port Arthur Texas. (Photo/iStock)

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.

“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 birth weight in other contexts.

The research appears today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Exposure to natural gas flaring associated with preterm birth

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.

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 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.”

Exposure to wells, race also contribute to higher odds of preterm birth

Women who lived within 3 miles of a high number of oil and gas wells also had higher odds of 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.

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.

— by Leigh Hopper


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.

Increased air pollution linked to bad teenage behavior

Tiny, toxic particles creep into developing brains, cause inflammation and may damage brain pathways responsible for emotion and decisions, USC researcher finds.

A new study linking higher levels of air pollution to increased teenage delinquency is a reminder of the importance of clean air and the need for more foliage in urban spaces, a Keck School of Medicine of USC researcher said.

Tiny pollution particles called particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) — 30 times smaller than a strand of hair — are extremely harmful to your health, according to Diana Younan, lead author of the study.

“These tiny, toxic particles creep into your body, affecting your lungs and your heart,” said Younan, a preventive medicine research associate at the Keck School of Medicine. “Studies are beginning to show exposure to various air pollutants also causes inflammation in the brain. PM2.5 is particularly harmful to developing brains because it can damage brain structure and neural networks and, as our study suggests, influence adolescent behaviors.”

The study, published on Dec. 13 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, suggests that ambient air pollution may increase delinquent behavior among 9- to 18-year-olds in urban neighborhoods in Greater Los Angeles. The insidious effects are compounded by poor parent-child relationships and parental mental and social distress, researchers said.

“Previous studies by others have shown that early exposure to lead disrupts brain development and increases aggressive behavior and juvenile delinquency,” Younan said. “It’s possible that growing up in places with unhealthy levels of small particles outdoors may have similar negative behavioral outcomes, though more research is needed to confirm this. Both lead and PM2.5 are environmental factors that we can clean up through a concerted intervention effort and policy change.”

More than just a lung and heart concern

The study followed 682 children in Greater Los Angeles for nine years starting when they were 9. Parents completed a child-behavior checklist every few years and noted if their child had engaged in 13 rule-breaking behaviors, including lying and cheating, truancy, stealing, vandalism, arson, or substance abuse. Up to four assessments were recorded per participant.

Researchers used 25 air quality monitors to measure daily air pollution in Southern California from 2000 to 2014. They computed each participant’s residential address and used mathematical modeling to estimate the ambient PM2.5 levels outside each home. About 75 percent of the participants breathed ambient air pollution that exceeded the federal recommended levels of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Some areas had nearly double the recommended amount of these particles.

“It is widely recognized that ambient air pollution is detrimental to the respiratory and cardiovascular health of young and old alike. But in recent years, scientists have come to acknowledge the negative impact of air pollution on human brains and behaviors,” said Jiu-Chiuan Chen, an associate professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine and senior author of the study.

Environmental scientists and economists have speculated that elevated air pollution levels could increase criminal activities in communities. Interestingly, data show that both ambient PM2.5 concentration and crime rates in Southern California have been on the decline, the study stated. Future studies need to examine whether that is mere coincidence or if tightened air regulations might have contributed to the declining crime rates in many metropolitan areas, the researchers said.

“Poor people, unfortunately, are more likely to live in urban areas in less than ideal neighborhoods,” Younan said. “Many affordable housing developments are built near freeways. Living so close to freeways causes health problems such as asthma and, perhaps, alters teenagers’ brain structures so that they are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior.”

This one-two hit may increase teenage delinquency

The study identified higher air pollution estimates near freeways and in neighborhoods with limited greenspace or foliage.

Researchers noticed more delinquent behavior from boys, African-Americans, adolescents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and people who lived in downtrodden neighborhoods with limited greenspace when compared to their counterparts.

The bad behaviors associated with increased outdoor air pollution levels were magnified when children did not have good relationships with their parents, lived with depressed mothers or grew up in homes with higher levels of parental stress.

“If you live in an area with high air pollution, like near a freeway or in a neighborhood with little greenery, try to avoid being outside so much and keep windows closed as much as possible when the ambient PM2.5 levels are high,” Younan said. “Try to compensate for air pollution by having a good indoor environment and healthy family dynamics.

“A bad parent-child relationship causes a stressful family environment, and if this goes on for too long, the teenager could be in a chronic state of stress. This could wreak havoc on the body, making teens more vulnerable to the effects of exposure to small particles. Many scientists suspect PM2.5 causes inflammation in the brain or somehow travels directly into the brain and messes with neural network connections, resulting in the observed bad behaviors.”

The data was adjusted for gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, neighborhood socioeconomic characteristics and neighborhood quality.

More foliage and cleaner air needed

Younan and her colleagues at the USC Environmental Health Sciences Center have collaborated with researchers and engineers from different disciplines at USC for more than two decades to investigate the insidious effects of air pollution. They found that air pollution increases obesity, that teenagers in urban communities with less foliage (such as parks) tend to be more aggressive and that older women living in areas with PM2.5 levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard had nearly double the risk for dementia when compared to their counterparts.

Catherine Tuvblad and Laura A. Baker from USC; Meredith Franklin, Lianfa Li and Kiros Berhane from the Keck School of Medicine; Fred Lurmann from Sonoma Technology; and Jun Wu from the University of California, Irvine, contributed to the study.

The research was fully funded by the federal government using a portion of $993,000 in grant funds from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (R21 ES022369, F31 ES025080). Administrative support was provided by the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center. The USC Twin Cohort Study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH058354). 

— By Zen Vuong

Environmental health scientist honored for air pollution research

Ed Avol, Professor of Clinical Preventive Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, was recognized at the 27th Annual International Society of Exposure Science Meeting in October for his career as an exposure scientist researching air pollution and its public health impacts.

Avol received the Constance L. Mehlman Award, which recognizes society members who helped shape a national or state policy with exposure analysis, or affected a reduction or prevention of exposure.

Trained at the California Institute of Technology, Avol has pursued exposure science for more than 40 years. His work continues to impact policies by providing scientific evidence for reducing air pollution exposures.

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— By Larissa Puro