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The unborn baby: Healthy pregnant mothers exposed to air pollution from road traffic inhale toxic particles that may end up in the placenta
Sep28

The unborn baby: Healthy pregnant mothers exposed to air pollution from road traffic inhale toxic particles that may end up in the placenta

By Roberta Attanasio According to a recently published study, carbon and metal particles from road traffic, once inhaled, reach one of the many places where we would rather not find them—the unborn baby’s life support system, best known as placenta. Lead author Jonathan Grigg said: “Our study for the first time shows that inhaled carbon particulate matter in air pollution, travels in the blood stream, and is taken up by important cells in the placenta.” For the study, researchers analyzed placentas from 15 healthy non-smoking women, donated after the birth of their children. All women delivered healthy babies. However, they lived in an environment that exposed them to high levels of particulate matter originating from urban traffic. Indeed, the particles observed in the placental cells closely resemble—in size, shape and composition—those emitted by traffic-related sources or formed from them.   Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash Particulate matter (also called particle pollution) is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air, which come in many sizes and shapes and are made up of hundreds of different chemicals. Some particles, such as dust, dirt, soot, or smoke, are large or dark enough to be seen with the naked eye. Others are so small they can only be detected using an electron microscope. Some particles are emitted by construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks or fires, but most form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are pollutants emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles. The researchers found—within the placental cells—not only carbon particles, but also particles containing carbon with a mixture of chemicals found in vehicle exhaust, such as iron, phosphorus, calcium, silica, aluminum, titanium, chromium, and cerium, which arise from fuel and oil additives. How did these particles get into the placental cells? Particles present in air pollution are inhaled, and then from the lungs translocate to distant organs through the blood stream. Macrophages and trophoblasts— the primary resident phagocytes in the placenta—pick them up. Phagocytes are cells of the innate immune system also known as the “big eaters”—they engulf the particles with the aim of “cleaning up” the placenta. Lisa Miyashita, a study co-author, said: “We have thought for a while that maternal inhalation could potentially result in pollution particles traveling to the placenta once inhaled. However, there are many defense mechanisms in the lung that prevent foreign particles from traveling elsewhere, so it was surprising to identify these particles in the placental cells from all 15 of our participants.” Why is it worrisome to find particulate matter in placental cells? “The placenta is a distinctive and...

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Allergies in Young Children: Effects of Exposure to Multiple Air Pollutants During Prenatal and Early Life
Dec10

Allergies in Young Children: Effects of Exposure to Multiple Air Pollutants During Prenatal and Early Life

By Roberta Attanasio The frequency of allergies in children keeps rising rapidly worldwide, but it’s not clear why. However, it is acknowledged that developing even one type of allergy early in life is almost like turning on a switch—it can start children on a path to more. “The progression of skin allergies to asthma and allergic rhinitis is called the allergic or atopic march. Atopic dermatitis is an itchy, inflammatory skin allergy that, before 1960, affected fewer than 3% of children; by the 2000s it had increased to around 20%. A child with atopic dermatitis is more likely to develop other allergic conditions or symptoms. For example, about 70% of people with severe atopic dermatitis have asthma, whereas in those without atopic dermatitis, only about 8% have asthma—a nearly 9-fold difference.” According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, atopy refers to the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis, asthma and atopic dermatitis (eczema). Atopy is typically associated with heightened immune responses, more specifically with excessive IgE production in response to common allergens, especially inhaled allergens and food allergens. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash Atopicn diseases (eczema, asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis) are clinical syndromes each defined by a group of symptoms and signs. Not all children with atopy will have atopic disease or develop symptoms after exposure to an allergen. Both genetic and environmental factors determine the development of atopic disease. Now, results from a new study show that there is a significant association between multiple prenatal and early life exposures to indoor pollutants and the degree of allergic sensitivity in 2 year old children. Now, results from a new study show that there is a significant association between multiple prenatal and early life exposures to indoor pollutants and the degree of allergic sensitivity in 2 year old children. For the study, researchers followed 108 mother-child pairs from birth to 2 years of age. They obtained data on the exposure to air fresheners, candles, mold, cats, dogs, carpet and environmental tobacco smoke during the prenatal, 6-month, 1-year, and 2-year timepoints. Then, they performed a skin prick test on both the mother and the 2-year-old child. A skin prick test, also called a puncture or scratch test, checks for immediate allergic reactions to as many as 40 different substances at once. This test is usually done to identify allergies to pollen, mold, pet dander, dust mites and foods. In adults, the test is usually done on the forearm, whereas children may be tested on the upper back. The researchers found that exposure to candles during the prenatal window, cats during the 6 month window, and environmental tobacco smoke at 2 years significantly increased the risk of a positive...

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Childhood Asthma and Traffic-Related Air Pollution
Oct15

Childhood Asthma and Traffic-Related Air Pollution

By Roberta Attanasio “I explain it to people like you are breathing through a coffee stirrer straw, and you just can’t get enough breath. The attacks can happen so quickly and out of nowhere, so I feel like I’m really not in control of my own body. Not being able to breathe in and out the way my body is designed to do is quite scary” says one of the 19 million adults who currently have asthma in the US. Asthma is a chronic disorder that causes swelling and inflammation in the lungs—the airways narrow and produce extra mucus, making breathing difficult and causing coughing, shortness of breath and wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound made while breathing. Asthma attacks, in absence of appropriate treatment, can be life-threatening. Exposure to various irritants and substances that trigger allergies—as for example pollen, dust mites, mold spores, pet dander, smoke and certain medications—can also trigger signs and symptoms of asthma. However, asthma triggers are different from person to person. Photo by Laith Abdulkareem on Unsplash According to the National Center for Health Statistics, asthma also affects 6.2 million children in the US. Indeed, childhood asthma is the most common serious chronic disease in infants and children. Alarmingly, asthma is now the most commonly reported non-communicable disease among children worldwide. Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution, one of the major triggers of asthma attacks. Research indicates that air pollutants suppress genes that regulate the immune system’s ability to differentiate harmless substances from dangerous viruses or bacteria. The immune system then sets up an inflammatory response which leads to asthma. Notably, results from a recent study show that millions of children worldwide develop asthma annually due to a specific type of pollution—traffic-related air pollution. The study, based on data from 2010 to 2015, focuses on a particular type of traffic-related pollutant—nitrogen dioxide, or NO2—and estimates that 64 percent of these new cases of asthma occur in urban areas. NO2 is one of a group of gases called nitrogen oxides. While all of these gases are harmful to human health and the environment, NO2 is of greater concern. It forms from emissions from cars, trucks and buses, power plants, and off-road equipment, and irritates airways in the human respiratory system. For the study, researchers used a method that takes into account high NO2 exposures occurring near busy roads. They were then able to estimate the number of new pediatric asthma cases attributable to NO2 pollution in 194 countries and 125 major cities worldwide. Of the 125 major cities, the highest traffic-related air pollution effects on asthma were found in Lima, Peru; Shanghai, China: Bogota, Colombia; Beijing,...

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Clean Air: The Effects of U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standards on Human Health
May04

Clean Air: The Effects of U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standards on Human Health

By Roberta Attanasio A little more than a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2012 around 7 million people died — accounting for one in eight of total global deaths — as a result of exposure to air pollution. These estimates more than doubled the previous ones, and confirmed that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. The WHO concluded that reducing air pollution globally could save millions of lives. But, what policy changes would be most effective at saving lives? The answer comes from a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change (May 4, 2015.) The study, (US power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits), was based on data from the Census Bureau as well as detailed maps of the more than 2,400 fossil-fuel-fired power plants operating across the U.S. It outlines how changes in carbon dioxide emissions could lead to considerable health benefits for the U.S population. According to the WHO, the diseases caused by air pollution include ischemic heart disease (40%), stroke (40%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (11%), lung cancer (6%), and acute lower respiratory infections in children (3%). For the new study, the researchers analyzed three possible policy options for power plant carbon standards. The policy option leading to the biggest health benefits was the one that included changes proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 2, 2014, in the Clean Power Plan. Modeling analysis indicated that this option could prevent an expected 3,500 premature deaths in the U.S. every year, and avert more than a thousand heart attacks and hospitalizations annually from air pollution-related illness. Thus, according to the study, the formula presented in the draft Clean Power Plan is on the right track to provide large health benefits, and these health benefits depend entirely on critical policy choices that will be made by the EPA in the final Clean Power Plan expected in July. The Plan is the nation’s first attempt to establish standards for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. It is also viewed as an important signal of U.S. leadership in the run-up to international climate negotiations in Paris in December. Jonathan Buonocore, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release: “If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented.” Power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. However, they release not only carbon dioxide, but also other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — precursors to smog and...

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Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollutants: Links to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Apr11

Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollutants: Links to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

By Roberta Attanasio PHAs — short for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — are bad actors: they’re toxic, ubiquitous pollutants that readily cross the placenta, causing damage to the fetal brain. Now, results from a new study show that PHA-induced fetal brain damage may lead to severe behavioral problems during early childhood, including aggression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The deleterious effects of air pollution — greater risk of stroke, heart attacks and cognitive deterioration — are widely recognized. However, the new study assessed prenatal exposure and identified specific physical damage in the brain. The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brains of 40 children from a cohort consisting of more than 600 mother-baby pairs. The mothers were either Latina (Dominican) or African American nonsmoking women from minority communities in New York City, aged 18 to 35 years. During the third trimester of pregnancy, the women carried personal backpack monitors that measured exposure to eight common PAHs over 48 hours. Such exposure occurred by breathing contaminated air. PHAs — common components of air pollution — are often found together in groups of two or more and persist in the environment for long periods of time. They’re generated by motor vehicles, waste incineration, wildfires and agricultural burning, and oil and coal burning for heat and electricity. Cooking (especially charred foods), tobacco smoke, and space heaters are indoor sources of PHAs. Low-income, urban, and minority communities are disproportionately exposed to these air pollutants. The researchers had previously demonstrated that exposure of the pregnant women from the same cohort to airborne PAHs was associated with multiple neuro-developmental disturbances. Results form the new study indicate that such disturbances have a biological root in the altered architecture of the brain. Specifically, PHA exposure was linked to reductions of the white matter surface in later childhood. These reductions were confined almost exclusively to the left hemisphere of the brain, and involved almost its entire surface. The researchers don’t know why the left side seemed to be affected more, but they suspect the compounds interfere with an early biochemical process that helps the fetal brain divide into slightly asymmetrical hemispheres. Results from the study also show that postnatal PAH exposure correlates with white matter surface measures in other regions of the brain, the dorsal prefrontal regions. Thus, the children involved in the study were exposed to “a double hit”, first as developing fetuses, and then at an early age. Indeed, Bradley Peterson, lead author of the study, told the Los Angeles Times: “It’s a double hit. They have the abnormality from prenatal life throughout the left hemisphere and then on top of that they have...

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