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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

California Breathing

Air Date: Week of

In the longest study of its kind, researchers at the University of Southern California have found that children living in the Los Angeles area have reduced lung capacity which may increase their risk of respiratory problems later in life. Host Steve Curwood talks with Dr. C. Arden Pope III of Brigham Young University about the results and implications of this long-ranging study.


CURWOOD: Breathing in the air in some parts of southern California is the same as living in a house with a frequent smoker, a group of researchers has found. Long-term exposure to such air pollution has been particularly harmful to hundreds of otherwise healthy adolescents in the Golden State who were monitored over the course of eight years as part of a ground-breaking study.

During that time, chronic air pollution was found to reduce lung development and function significantly, according to the research team based at the University of Southern California. The New England Journal of Medicine published the results of the study in its current edition. And Arden Pope of Brigham Young University wrote an accompanying editorial that urges public health officials to take the findings of the study into consideration when drafting future policy.

Professor Pope joins us now. Hello, sir.

POPE: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now, there have been other studies that link air pollution to stunted lung development in children. How is this particular study so different?

POPE: Well, basically, this is really sort of the largest, most well-conducted study of its type. It was conducted by a collaborative team of excellent researchers in southern California. It prospectively followed up over 1,700 children in 12 communities in southern California, and so it provides reasonably robust confirmation that there are in fact cumulative adverse effects of long-term repeated exposures to air pollution. And maybe more importantly, that these effects occur over time even in otherwise normal, healthy children.

CURWOOD: What’s so important about its findings?

POPE: Well, its findings are extremely important in that children that are exposed to higher levels of air pollution have lower lung function growth. So any parent or any child should be concerned if they live in an area that results in deficits in lung function growth in such a way that they don’t reach their full potential.

CURWOOD: Can you just elaborate for us what’s meant here by reduced lung function? What do these kids experience as a result of being exposed to this pollution over the long term?

POPE: Well, what’s happening here is that the children don’t necessarily experience any sort of acute discomfort. They won’t really even notice the impact of this deficit in lung function growth because many of them wouldn’t even know what their full capacity, or full lung function capacity, would be had they not been exposed to the air pollution. But what this study tells us is that, on average, these panels of children that are exposed to more air pollution have lower lung function and obtain lower lung function as they reach adulthood.

Now that’s likely to, in the short term, affect their performance in, say, endurance sports or whatever. But, in addition to that, if this lung function influences them later in life, in terms of risk of getting Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, other bronchitic-related diseases, then it’s likely to affect their lifestyle as they age. And deficits in lung function are also associated with increased risk of premature death.

CURWOOD: What do you think that officials, such as pollution regulators and public health administrators, what should they be doing in the light of the findings of this study?

POPE: That’s a hard question because there have been substantial efforts to try to control the air pollution in southern California. And had they not been making these efforts -- given the increase in the number of cars, the number of miles being driven, the population concentrations that exist there – had these efforts not been made, the air pollution in that area of California would be just horrendous.

And, in fact, the air quality has been improving somewhat in southern California. But what these results suggest is we shouldn’t sort of overstate the health effects, but we shouldn’t understate them either. We should simply understand that air pollution of this type is ubiquitous; it’s something that we are going to be exposed to in our communities, and to the extent that we can address this air pollution, we can improve our public health.

CURWOOD: Arden Pope is a professor specializing in environmental epidemiology at Brigham Young University. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

POPE: You’re welcome, good luck.



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