Scientists reviewed evidence of the far-reaching health effects of air pollution at the annual North Carolina (NC) Breathe conference in Raleigh Mar. 28, and at an Apr. 3 lecture at NIEHS. At the same time, innovative displays are making air pollution more evident to the public.
“Most air pollution in North Carolina is invisible,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Clean Air Carolina, one of the organizations that hosted NC Breathe. “To get the attention of the public and policymakers, it’s crucial we create interesting and exciting opportunities for them to learn about the quality of the air they are breathing in real time.”
NC Breathe brings air quality experts together annually to identify research gaps and discuss ways to improve North Carolina’s air. This year, the conference was coordinated with an outdoor art exhibit in downtown Raleigh. The exhibit, called Particle Falls, projects a display of lights to show passersby current levels of dust-like particulate matter (PM) in the air.
“When people realize this isn’t just a colorful projection on the side of a building, but data is being collected that can impact their health, [they] think about what’s really in the air they are breathing every day,” Blotnick said.
Nadadur reviews air pollution science at NC Breathe
During an NC Breathe keynote address, Sri Nadadur, Ph.D., a program director in the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch, reviewed harms from air pollution reported in epidemiological studies. These include heart attacks, worsening of asthma, preterm birth, low birth weight, and increased deaths. Nadadur said the effects of increased air pollution on cardiovascular disease are also a concern.
“We know these associations exist, but we need deeper understanding of the biological basis,” said Nadadur. “That knowledge is critical for providing additional scientific evidence for assessing health risks from poor air quality.”
Studies have documented harm from air pollution, even when pollutant levels are below current standards, according to Nadadur. Scientists are trying to understand why, and they suspect that ultrafine PM may play a major role.
Most ultrafine particles originate from fossil fuel combustion, such as in vehicle engines and power plants. Because of their frequently changing chemical compositions and microscopic size — on the nanometer scale — they are difficult to measure and to filter out of the air.
“One thing we know for sure about these ultrafine particles, based on what we’ve learned from engineered nanomaterials, is that they can persist longer in the body,” said Nadadur. “Studies have demonstrated that nanoparticles can go from lungs to lymph nodes to liver, and maybe reach other parts of the body.”
Research informs policy in Taiwan
Ultrafine particles and ambient air pollution are also a research priority at the Taiwan National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (Taiwan NIEHS), according to Director Yue-Liang Leon Guo, M.D., Ph.D., who spoke at NIEHS on Apr. 3. “You may notice that we actually copied your name,” he joked.
Guo shared studies from Taiwan of air pollution impacts on the general population, schoolchildren, and the elderly. “You have to compare which outcomes are more important, to determine where to control,” he said.
Different health outcomes — such as asthma attacks, heart attacks, stroke, and cancer — may be triggered by different air pollutants and have different effects, Guo stressed. Some effects may require medication or hospitalization, and others may be fatal.
Taiwan is facing a severe problem with PM2.5, or particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter, including ultrafine PM. “What needs to be done is to pinpoint the source of PM2.5,” said Guo, explaining that would help focus health-related policies on the biggest contributors. However, he acknowledged that this is complicated, because contributors to air pollution vary by geographic location, meteorological conditions, and other factors.
Interactive map makes air pollution visible
The factors that make air pollution vary can now be explored in an interactive map of ultrafine PM developed by NIEHS-funded scientists. Users can adjust factors like temperature, traffic volume, and wind direction and severity to see how air pollution levels change. The researchers used extensive data collected around Boston’s Chinatown and incorporated local landmarks to help make the map more meaningful to Chinatown residents.
Symma Finn, Ph.D., program director in the NIEHS Population Health Branch, said that she hopes the map will help other communities better understand factors that contribute to traffic-related air pollution, so they can take steps to protect their health.
(Virginia Guidry, Ph.D., is a technical writer and public information specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)