Polluted air hinders lung development, scientists say

Study of Calif. children finds growth of breathing capacity below normal

September 09, 2004|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Air pollution retards the development of children's lungs, making the victims weaker and more vulnerable to lung ailments, heart disease and other health problems later in life, according to a study released yesterday.

Researchers in Southern California, which has some of the nation's dirtiest air, studied 1,759 children for eight years and found that those living in areas with the most soot and other pollutants grew up with significantly lower lung capacity, said lead researcher James Gauderman, an associate professor at the University of Southern California.

The report was published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

Although Maryland's air quality is better than Southern California's, the Baltimore area also fails to meet federal air quality standards, and the region is among the worst 25 percent for microscopic soot particles formed when oil or coal is burned, according to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The implication of the new study is that children in Baltimore and other areas with heavy traffic face similar problems, said Dr. Jonathan Samet, chairman of the department of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"This is a major piece of evidence that air pollution in the U.S. actually slows lung growth," said Samet. "And what that means is that children are reaching adulthood with less lung [capacity], meaning they are more vulnerable to other insults, like cigarette smoking."

Research going back to the 1930s has shown that severe episodes of smog can kill people. Scientists in the 1980s and 1990s showed that low levels of particulate pollution from vehicles, factories and power plants can lead to asthma attacks and premature death.

But Gauderman's study, financed with an $18 million state grant and conducted over a decade by a team of about 40 researchers, provided the first major link between chronic exposure to pollution and distortion of how childrens' bodies develop, the editorial declared.

"These findings are applicable to any urban area, with the higher the levels of pollution, the worse the effect on children," said Gauderman. "The solution is really at the level of government regulation.

"You would have to put additional emissions controls on motor vehicles to control this problem. But we can't just look at vehicles; we also have power plants, diesel engines and exhaust from trains, ships and other sources."

Levels of fine particle pollution were the highest in the nation in Riverside, Calif., where part of Gauderman's study was conducted. The concentration of soot there was is 93 percent higher than federal air quality standards, according to an EPA study from 2000 to 2002.

By comparison, Baltimore's particle level was only 13 percent above federal standards - still high enough to make it one of 120 large jurisdictions with failing air quality during these years, according to the EPA.

More than 400 other counties and cities met federal standards, with Santa Fe, N.M., recording the lowest particulate pollution.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's heath commissioner, said residents of the area suffer from significant asthma problems and other ailments related in part to air pollution. Although exhaust fumes from factories and cars aren't bottled up here as they are in the Los Angeles basin, Baltimore's failing air quality is bad enough to exacerbate health problems, he said.

"We've already seen from earlier studies that asthma is caused - not just aggravated - by chronic air pollution, and now we see that chronic exposure literally affects the development of the lungs," said Beilenson. "This is why we care about the Clean Air Act, and why we care when the Bush administration loosens restrictions for the smokestack industries."

Gauderman's study examined not only the effects of fine particulate pollution, but also those of nitrogen dioxide and acid vapor, which are likewise created by the burning of oil and coal.

In 1993, his team of researchers recruited more than 1,000 fourth-graders in 30 schools scattered through 12 communities in Southern California. They included youngsters who lived in the most polluted areas, such as Mira Loma, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, and others in areas with cleaner air, such as Santa Barbara County, 200 miles north of Los Angeles.

For eight years, until the children completed high school, the scientists conducted annual lung tests, measuring the force and volume of the air they could blow out of their lungs. The researchers compared these numbers to yearly pollution levels.

Gauderman said the most significant finding was that youngsters who breathed the most pollution during their adolescent growth period were five times more likely to have reduced lung capacity by the age of 18 than children who grew up in the cleanest areas. The children from polluted areas had about 80 percent of the lung capacity of their peers from healthier regions.

In the future, these children could suffer breathing troubles when they catch a cold or the flu, Gauderman said. And when they become older adults, they might be more likely to suffer pneumonia or heart problems.

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