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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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As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger
Aug02

As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger

By Roberta Attanasio The U.S. coal industry is in rapid decline, a shift marked not only by the bankruptcy of many mine operators in coal-rich Appalachia but also by a legacy of potential environmental and social disasters. As mines close, states, the federal government and taxpayers are left wondering about the costs of cleaning up the abandoned land, especially at mountaintop removal sites, the most destructive type of mining. As coal companies go bankrupt, this has left states concerned taxpayers may have to pick up the environmental cleanup costs. But there are also societal costs related to mountaintop removal mining’s impact on health and mental health. As an immunologist, I reviewed the research literature for specific effects of mountaintop removal mining on the immune system. I did not identify any pertinent information. However, I did find plenty of clues suggesting that health and mental health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades. Environmental contaminants The communities that reside in proximity to the devastated lands where mountaintop removal mining occurs – some of the poorest in the nation – are concentrated in a 65-county area in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. They are also hit by the economic downturn caused by the decline of the local coal industry. Healthwise, Appalachian populations suffer disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality compared with the nation as a whole. A study that examined the elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas for 1979-2005 linked coal mining to “socioeconomic disadvantages” and concluded that the human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighed its economic benefits. Results from research published in 2011 show that mountaintop mining areas, in particular, are associated with the lowest health-related quality of life even in comparison to counties with other forms of coal mining. So, what makes mountaintop removal mining such a scourge for human health? To remove the top of the mountains, coal companies use destructive processes. In order to extract the underlying coal seams, a peak’s forest and brush are clear-cut and the topsoil is scraped away. The resulting debris is often set on fire. Then, explosives are poured into huge holes to literally blast off up to 800 to 1,000 feet of mountaintops. Draglines – huge machines able to scoop up to 100 tons in a single load – push rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys, damaging waterways and life associated with them. The result is not only a devastated landscape and the crushing of entire ecosystems, but also the dispersion in the environment of toxic pollutants. To learn more about the...

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Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?
Apr25

Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?

By Roberta Attanasio The problem of contaminated tap water in the U.S. goes well beyond Flint—and also beyond lead. There are many more toxic chemicals in our drinking water that we like to believe. Communities in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont recently found elevated levels of PFOA, a suspected carcinogen, in their water supplies. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a synthetic perfluoroalkyl chemical used to manufacture nonstick pan coatings and water-resistant clothing. And, even more recent is the finding that water discharged from Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant into Lake Champlain—the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people in the Burlington area—contains concentrations of pharmaceuticals high enough to reflect demographic shifts in the city. The presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water from different U.S. areas has been know for more than a few years. A report publicly released in 2011 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that drinking water in some metropolitan areas contains pharmaceuticals, and raised concerns about their potential impact on human health. According to the World Health Organization “Pharmaceuticals are synthetic or natural chemicals that can be found in prescription medicines, over-the-counter therapeutic drugs and veterinary drugs. Pharmaceuticals contain active ingredients that have been designed to have pharmacological effects and confer significant benefits to society. Pharmaceuticals can be introduced into water sources through sewage, which carries the excreta of individuals and patients who have used these chemicals, from uncontrolled drug disposal (e.g. discarding drugs into toilets) and from agricultural runoff comprising livestock manure. They have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public because of their potential to reach drinking-water.” Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and lead author of a study published in 2013 on the effects of pharmaceutical pollution on aquatic life and water quality, said in a press release: “Pharmaceutical pollution is now detected in waters throughout the world. Causes include aging infrastructure, sewage overflows, and agricultural runoff. Even when waste water makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren’t equipped to remove pharmaceuticals. As a result, our streams and rivers are exposed to a cocktail of synthetic compounds, from stimulants and antibiotics to analgesics and antihistamines.” Results from a study published this year in the journal Science of the Total Environment show that water samples from private wells on Cape Cod are contaminated not only by perfluoroalkyl chemicals and flame retardants, but also by a dozen different pharmaceuticals. The researchers found that sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections, and carbamazepine, a drug used to treat seizures, nerve pain, and bipolar disorder, were among the most common pharmaceuticals detected. The researchers also found that...

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Climate Change, Parasite Infections, and Immune Responses
Mar06

Climate Change, Parasite Infections, and Immune Responses

By Roberta Attanasio Global climate change noticeably impacts human health—safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter are threatened by rising sea levels and severe weather events. Heat waves dramatically increase death rates not only from heat strokes, but also from complications arising from cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular diseases. Although global warming may bring some localized benefits, such as fewer winter deaths in temperate climates and increased food production in certain areas, the overall health effects of a changing climate are likely to be overwhelmingly negative. For example, climate warming is predicted to increase the transmission of parasite infections. Now, results from a recent study show that host immunity can influence the impact of warming on host–parasite interactions and mitigate its long-term effects. For the study (Host immunity shapes the impact of climate changes on the dynamics of parasite infections), researchers focused on soil-transmitted gastrointestinal helminths, also known as parasitic worms. In humans, these worms cause some of the most common parasitic infections worldwide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 2 billion people are infected with soil-transmitted helminths globally, mostly in the poorest and most deprived communities. They are transmitted by eggs present in human feces, which in turn contaminate soil in areas where sanitation is poor. However, the researchers focused on two parasitic worms of rabbits, Trichostrongylus retortaeformis and Graphidum strigosum. In previous studies, the researchers found that, in rabbits, infections from one of the parasites are controlled by the immune response, whereas infections from the other parasite species are not controlled, even though the rabbits do mount an immune response to the parasite. Therefore, the researchers designed the new study to understand the contribution of climate change and immunity on the long-term and seasonal dynamics of infections caused by the two rabbit parasitic worms. They examined samples collected monthly between 1977 and 2002 in Scotland. The study results show that climate warming—rising temperature and humidity—increases the availability in pastures of the infective stages of both intestinal worms. The intensity of infection increases for the worm not regulated by immunity. In contrast, there is no significant long-term positive trend in the intensity for the immune-controlled worm. Specifically, G. strigosum infection is not controlled by the rabbit immune response. Therefore, the intensity of the parasite infection increases with warming, leading to significant accumulation of G. strigosum in rabbits, mostly in adult rabbits. Why? The rabbits aren’t able to clear the infection caused by G. strigosum with their immune response; therefore, the rabbits accumulate more and more parasites as they age—the result is that older individuals carry most of the infection in the population. However, because T. retortaeformis infection is...

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