PURPOSE OF REVIEW: Studies over the last 2 years have added important new information on the relationship between air pollution and asthma incidence and severity.
RECENT FINDINGS: Outdoor air pollution has been associated with asthma exacerbations, including emergency department visits and hospitalizations, as well as with the onset of asthma. Possible mechanisms mediating both incidence and severity effects include the induction of oxidative stress, and/or allergic sensitization, as well as increased susceptibility to viral infections. Some of these mechanisms may be occurring in utero including epigenetic changes that may increase risk for development of asthma. Factors related to increased susceptibility for air pollution-related asthma severity include age, season and genetic polymorphisms related to antioxidant enzymes.
SUMMARY: Ambient pollution levels may be associated with both asthma incidence and severity. Susceptibility to air pollution may be higher in children with genetic polymorphisms related to the ‘oxidant stress pathways’. Potential interventions for susceptible children at risk for asthma development and/or severity include decreased exposure on high air pollution days, especially in the summer months, and antioxidant supplementation. On the population level, changes in school and home zoning to increase distance from busy roadways may help reduce both asthma incidence and severity.
Directional drilling and hydraulic-fracturing technologies are dramatically increasing natural-gas extraction. In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction. In active gas-extraction areas (one or more gas wells within 1 km), average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well and were 19.2 and 64 mg CH(4) L(-1) (n = 26), a potential explosion hazard; in contrast, dissolved methane samples in neighboring nonextraction sites (no gas wells within 1 km) within similar geologic formations and hydrogeologic regimes averaged only 1.1 mg L(-1) (P < 0.05; n = 34). Average δ(13)C-CH(4) values of dissolved methane in shallow groundwater were significantly less negative for active than for nonactive sites (-37 ± 7‰ and -54 ± 11‰, respectively; P < 0.0001). These δ(13)C-CH(4) data, coupled with the ratios of methane-to-higher-chain hydrocarbons, and δ(2)H-CH(4) values, are consistent with deeper thermogenic methane sources such as the Marcellus and Utica shales at the active sites and matched gas geochemistry from gas wells nearby. In contrast, lower-concentration samples from shallow groundwater at nonactive sites had isotopic signatures reflecting a more biogenic or mixed biogenic/thermogenic methane source. We found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids. We conclude that greater stewardship, data, and-possibly-regulation are needed to ensure the sustainable future of shale-gas extraction and to improve public confidence in its use.
Reducing the staggering costs of environmental disease in children, estimated at $76.6 billion in 2008
A 2002 analysis documented $54.9 billion in annual costs of environmentally mediated diseases in US children. However, few important changes in federal policy have been implemented to prevent exposures to toxic chemicals. We therefore updated and expanded the previous analysis and found that the costs of lead poisoning, prenatal methylmercury exposure, childhood cancer, asthma, intellectual disability, autism, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder were $76.6 billion in 2008. To prevent further increases in these costs, efforts are needed to institute premarket testing of new chemicals; conduct toxicity testing on chemicals already in use; reduce lead-based paint hazards; and curb mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Exposing children to environmental pollutants during important times of physiological development can lead to long-lasting health problems, dysfunction, and disease. The location of children’s schools can increase their exposure. We examined the extent of air pollution from industrial sources around public schools in Michigan to find out whether air pollution jeopardizes children’s health and academic success. We found that schools located in areas with the highest air pollution levels had the lowest attendance rates-a potential indicator of poor health-and the highest proportions of students who failed to meet state educational testing standards. Michigan and many other states currently do not require officials considering a site for a new school to analyze its environmental quality. Our results show that such requirements are needed. For schools already in existence, we recommend that their environmental quality should be investigated and improved if necessary.
Efforts to identify alternative sources of energy have focused on extracting natural gas from vast shale deposits. The Marcellus Shale, located in western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, is estimated to contain enough natural gas to supply the United States for the next 45 years. New drilling technology-horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing of shale (fracking)-has made gas extraction much more economically feasible. However, this technique poses a threat to the environment and to the public’s health. There is evidence that many of the chemicals used in fracking can damage the lungs, liver, kidneys, blood, and brain. We discuss the controversial technique of fracking and raise the issue of how to balance the need for energy with the protection of the public’s health.
Maternal exposure to ambient levels of benzene and neural tube defects among offspring: Texas, 1999-2004
Previous studies have reported positive associations between maternal exposure to air pollutants and several adverse birth outcomes. However, there have been no studies assessing the association between environmental levels of hazardous air pollutants, such as benzene, and neural tube defects (NTDs), a common and serious group of congenital malformations.
OBJECTIVE: Our goal was to conduct a case-control study assessing the association between ambient air levels of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) and the prevalence of NTDs among offspring.
METHODS: The Texas Birth Defects Registry provided data on NTD cases (spina bifida and anencephaly) delivered between 1999 and 2004. The control group was a random sample of unaffected live births, frequency matched to cases on year of birth. Census tract-level estimates of annual BTEX levels were obtained from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 1999 Assessment System for Population Exposure Nationwide. Restricted cubic splines were used in mixed-effects logistic regression models to determine associations between each pollutant and NTD phenotype.
RESULTS: Mothers living in census tracts with the highest benzene levels were more likely to have offspring with spina bifida than were women living in census tracts with the lowest levels (odds ratio = 2.30; 95% confidence interval, 1.22-4.33). No significant associations were observed between anencephaly and benzene or between any of the NTD phenotypes and toluene, ethylbenzene, or xylene.
CONCLUSION: In the first study to assess the relationship between environmental levels of BTEX and NTDs, we found an association between benzene and spina bifida. Our results contribute to the growing body of evidence regarding air pollutant exposure and adverse birth outcomes.
OBJECTIVE: There is growing interest in disentangling the health effects of spatially clustered social and physical environmental exposures and in exploring potential synergies among them, with particular attention directed to the combined effects of psychosocial stress and air pollution. Both exposures may be elevated in lower-income urban communities, and it has been hypothesized that stress, which can influence immune function and susceptibility, may potentiate the effects of air pollution in respiratory disease onset and exacerbation. In this paper, we attempt to synthesize the relevant research from social and environmental epidemiology, toxicology, immunology, and exposure assessment to provide a useful framework for environmental health researchers aiming to investigate the health effects of environmental pollution in combination with social or psychological factors.
DATA SYNTHESIS: We review the existing epidemiologic and toxicologic evidence on synergistic effects of stress and pollution, and then describe the physiologic effects of stress and key issues related to measuring and evaluating stress as it relates to physical environmental exposures and susceptibility. Finally, we identify some of the major methodologic challenges ahead as we work toward disentangling the health effects of clustered social and physical exposures and accurately describing the interplay among these exposures.
CONCLUSIONS: There is still tremendous work to be done toward understanding the combined and potentially synergistic health effects of stress and pollution. As this research proceeds, we recommend careful attention to the relative temporalities of stress and pollution exposures, to nonlinearities in their independent and combined effects, to physiologic pathways not elucidated by epidemiologic methods, and to the relative spatial distributions of social and physical exposures at multiple geographic scales.