TAG: "Environmental health"

Hazy road to Mecca


Severe air pollution spikes during yearly pilgrmiage, UC Irvine and others find.

UC Irvine and other researchers are testing air pollution in the Middle East, including in Mecca during the annual hajj, at burning landfills and elsewhere. Dangerously high levels of smog forming contaminants are being released, the scientists have found. (Photo by Dr. Azhar Siddique)

Dangerously high levels of air pollutants are being released in Mecca during the hajj, the annual holy pilgrimage in which millions of Muslims on foot and in vehicles converge on the Saudi Arabian city, according to findings reported today (Dec. 15) at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

“Hajj is like nothing else on the planet. You have 3 to 4 million people – a whole good-sized city – coming into an already existing city,” said Isobel Simpson, a UC Irvine research chemist in the Nobel Prize-winning Rowland-Blake atmospheric chemistry laboratory. “The problem is that this intensifies the pollution that already exists. We measured among the highest concentrations our group has ever measured in urban areas – and we’ve studied 75 cities around the world in the past two decades.”

Scientists from UCI, King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, the University of Karachi in Pakistan, the New York State Department of Health’s Wadsworth Center and the University at Albany in New York captured and analyzed air samples during the 2012 and 2013 hajjes on roadsides; near massive, air-conditioned tents; and in narrow tunnels that funnel people to the Grand Mosque, the world’s largest, in the heart of Mecca.

The worst spot was inside the Al-Masjid Al-Haram tunnel, where pilgrims on foot, hotel workers and security personnel are exposed to fumes from idling vehicles, often for hours. The highest carbon monoxide level – 57,000 parts per billion – was recorded in this tunnel during October 2012. That’s more than 300 times regional background levels.

Heart attacks are a major concern linked to such exposure: The risk of heart failure hospitalization or death rises sharply as the amount of carbon monoxide in the air escalates, the researchers note in a paper published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Headaches, dizziness and nausea also have been associated with inhaling carbon monoxide.

“There’s carbon monoxide that increases the risk of heart failure. There’s benzene that causes narcosis and leukemia,” Simpson said. “But the other way to look at it is that people are not just breathing in benzene or CO, they’re breathing in hundreds of components of smog and soot.”

The scientists detected a stew of unhealthy chemicals, many connected to serious illnesses by the World Health Organization and others.

“Air pollution is the cause of 1 in 8 deaths and has now become the single biggest environmental health risk globally,” said Haider Khwaja of the University at Albany. “There were 4.3 million deaths in 2012 due to indoor air pollution and 3.7 million deaths because of outdoor air pollution, according to WHO. And more than 90 percent of those deaths and lost life years occur in developing countries.”

Khwaja experienced sooty air pollution firsthand as a child in Karachi, Pakistan, and saw his elderly father return from the hajj with a wracking cough that took weeks to clear. He and fellow researchers braved the tunnels and roads to take air samples and install continuous monitors in Mecca.

“Suffocating,” he said of the air quality.

In addition to the high smog-forming measurements, the team in follow-up work found alarming levels of black carbon and fine particulates that sink deep into lungs. Once the hajj was over, concentrations of all contaminants fell but were still comparable to those in other large cities with poor air quality. Just as unhealthy “bad air” days once plagued Greater Los Angeles, research is now showing degraded air in the oil-rich, sunny Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere in the Middle East. Because the number of pilgrims and permanent residents is increasing, the scientists recommend reducing emissions by targeting fossil fuel sources.

Besides vehicle exhaust, other likely culprits include gasoline high in benzene, a lack of vapor locks around gas station fuel nozzles, and older cars with disintegrating brake liners and other parts. Coolants used for air-conditioned tents sleeping up to 40 people also contribute to greenhouse gas buildup. And the dearth of regulations exacerbates these problems.

The researchers said that Saudi officials are aware of the issues and taking steps to address them, such as working to reduce benzene in area gasoline supplies. Directing Mecca pedestrians and vehicles to separate tunnels would be optimal. In addition, clearing the region’s air with time-tested technologies used elsewhere in the world could sharply reduce pollution and save lives.

“This is a major public health problem, and the positive news is that some of the answers are very much within reach, like putting rubber seals on nozzles at gas stations to reduce leaks,” Simpson said. “It’s a simple, doable solution.”

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Traffic’s toll on the heart


Clogged interstates aggravate clogged arteries, according to UC Irvine research.

Credit: Jess Wheelock, UC Office of the President

By Nicole Freeling, UC Newsroom

Anyone who has experienced Los Angeles gridlock likely can attest that traffic may cause one’s blood pressure to rise. But UC Irvine researchers have found that, beyond the aggravation caused by fellow drivers, traffic-related air pollution presents serious heart health risks — not just for rush hour commuters, but for those who live and work nearby.

Research by UC Irvine joint M.D./Ph.D. student Sharine Wittkopp contributes to evidence that the increased air pollution generated by vehicle congestion causes blood pressure to rise and arteries to inflame, increasing incidents of heart attack and stroke for people who reside near traffic-prone areas.

“While the impact of traffic-related pollution on people with chronic lung diseases is well known, the link to adverse heart impacts has been less described,” said Wittkopp.

UC Irvine M.D./Ph.D. student Sharine Wittkopp is investigating genetic factors that make some people more vulnerable to pollution’s negative effects. (Photo courtesy of Sharine Wittkopp)

Her research project, funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, focused on residents of a Los Angeles senior housing community who had coronary artery disease.

Study participants spend the vast majority of their time at home, which meant they had prolonged exposure to traffic-related air pollution at the site. Because of their age and pre-existing heart conditions, they were thought to be more vulnerable to small, day-to-day variations in air quality.

“They are really in the thick of it,” Wittkopp said. “They are the ones that are going to suffer the most, and who are the least likely to be resilient.”

Up to now, most studies on the impacts of air pollution have focused on its effects over much larger populations, with difficulty capturing accurate exposures and short-term changes. Wittkopp and her team wanted to look at how daily fluctuations in traffic and air quality would affect those residing in the immediate vicinity of congested roadways.

The research team, led by adviser Ralph Delfino, associate professor and vice chair for research and graduate studies in the Department of Epidemiology at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, set up air quality monitors at the residences of the study participants. They looked for daily and weekly changes in traffic-related pollution such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter.

What they found: “Blood pressure went up with increased traffic pollutants, and EKG changes showed decreased blood flow to the heart,” Wittkopp said.

Uncovering a genetic link

Just how susceptible a person is to these negative impacts appears to depend not just upon age and proximity to traffic, but also upon genetics, the research team found.

They uncovered what they believe is the first epidemiological evidence that a person’s mitochondrial DNA could affect their susceptibility to adverse health effects related to air pollution.

“When our cells are exposed to toxins, they respond by making more proteins that enable them to detoxify pollutants,” Wittkopp said. “We can actually monitor how the protein levels are going up and down and how the gene readouts change as people are exposed.” Looking at traffic-related pollution, they discovered that a person’s ability to produce the proteins that combat pollutants varied dramatically based on their DNA.

By identifying the genetic variables that place people at greater risk, health care providers could help account for these impacts and prescribe proactive treatments — such as antioxidants that reduce inflammation — that would make people less vulnerable.

But Wittkopp also stresses such treatment would simply be a Band-Aid on the greater problem.

Impetus to improve infrastructure, lessen exposure

“Understanding the health problems that traffic-related pollution causes helps us understand why we need to change things and improve our infrastructure to reduce exposure,” said Wittkopp, who believes this research can provide policymakers and the public with a fuller picture of the impact of pollution.

“This kind of information can help us quantify the cost of traffic-related air pollution in terms of health care costs, lives lost and quality of life diminished.”

While genetic factors may make some more vulnerable than others, Wittkopp points out, “There’s no one who’s not susceptible in some way. No one gets better when they are exposed to these pollutants.”

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Soap’s dirty side


Triclosan, common antimicrobial in hygiene products, causes liver fibrosis, cancer in mice.

Triclosan is an antimicrobial commonly found in soaps, shampoos, toothpastes and many other household items. Despite its widespread use, researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine report potentially serious consequences of long-term exposure to the chemical. The study, published today (Nov. 17) by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that triclosan causes liver fibrosis and cancer in laboratory mice through molecular mechanisms that are also relevant in humans.

“Triclosan’s increasing detection in environmental samples and its increasingly broad use in consumer products may overcome its moderate benefit and present a very real risk of liver toxicity for people, as it does in mice, particularly when combined with other compounds with similar action,” said Robert H. Tukey, Ph.D., professor in the departments of chemistry and biochemistry and pharmacology. Tukey led the study, together with Bruce D. Hammock, Ph.D., professor at UC Davis. Both Tukey and Hammock are directors of National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Superfund Programs at their respective campuses.

Tukey, Hammock and their teams, including Mei-Fei Yueh, Ph.D., found that triclosan disrupted liver integrity and compromised liver function in mouse models. Mice exposed to triclosan for six months (roughly equivalent to 18 human years) were more susceptible to chemical-induced liver tumors. Their tumors were also larger and more frequent than in mice not exposed to triclosan.

The study suggests triclosan may do its damage by interfering with the constitutive androstane receptor, a protein responsible for detoxifying (clearing away) foreign chemicals in the body. To compensate for this stress, liver cells proliferate and turn fibrotic over time. Repeated triclosan exposure and continued liver fibrosis eventually promote tumor formation.

Triclosan is perhaps the most ubiquitous consumer antibacterial. Studies have found traces in 97 percent of breast milk samples from lactating women and in the urine of nearly 75 percent of people tested. Triclosan is also common in the environment: It is one of the seven most frequently detected compounds in streams across the United States.

“We could reduce most human and environmental exposures by eliminating uses of triclosan that are high volume, but of low benefit, such as inclusion in liquid hand soaps,” Hammock said. “Yet we could also for now retain uses shown to have health value — as in toothpaste, where the amount used is small.”

Triclosan is already under scrutiny by the FDA, thanks to its widespread use and recent reports that it can disrupt hormones and impair muscle contraction.

Co-authors include Koji Taniguchi, Shujuan Chen and Michael Karin, UC San Diego; and Ronald M. Evans, Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

This research was funded, in part, by U.S. Public Health Service grants ES010337, GM086713, GM100481, A1043477, ES002710 and ES004699.

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Global dietary choices show disturbing trends


UC Santa Barbara professor co-authors paper that examines global impact of what we eat.

David Tilman

The world is gaining weight and becoming less healthy, and global dietary choices are harming the environment.

Those are among the findings of a paper co-authored by David Tilman, a professor in the UC Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, and Michael Clark, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where Tilman also is a professor. In “Global Diets Link Environmental Sustainability and Human Health,” published today (Nov. 12) in the journal Nature, the researchers find that rising incomes and urbanization around the world are driving a global dietary transition that is, in turn, diminishing the health of both people and the planet.

“These dietary shifts,” they write, “are greatly increasing the incidence of Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and other chronic non-communicable diseases that lower global life expectancies.”

The paper is the first to show the global links among the elements of what Tilman refers to as the “tightly linked diet–environment–health trilemma.”

“Previous analyses have looked at the effects of diet in individual countries, but we are the first to examine the global impacts on both human health and the environment of diet as it is now and as it is becoming,” he says. “We gathered information on dietary trends and environmental impacts for 90 percent of the global population. Our data let us see how diets, health and the environment have been changing and where they are going.”

“Some of what we found is not surprising, but the global implications are frightening,” Tilman adds. “Most of us have heard that some diets are healthier, that eating too many calories is bad for you and that red meat harms the environment. We were surprised at how rapidly and consistently diets were changing around the world, how massively this would impact global health and how much it would increase global greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of tropical forests and other ecosystems.”

Unhealthful diets linked to urbanization

The links between urbanization, increased wealth and unhealthful diets are clear, Tilman explains. When a country industrializes, the transition from a traditional rural diet to one that includes more processed meats and more empty calories can occur quickly. “People move to cities, leaving behind their own gardens where they grew fruits and vegetables,” Tilman said. “They’re working in a factory 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, so they need food that’s cheap and fast. The cheapest, fastest food you can get is filled with starch, sugar, fat and salt. Almost overnight, they go from a healthy diet to one that has way too many calories and leads to diabetes and heart disease.”

Also, because people tend to eat more meat as they become wealthier, much of the expected 100-percent increase in crop production that will be required by 2050 would be used to feed not humans but livestock. To do that, much more land will need to be cleared, with the result that more habitat will be lost, more species will likely become extinct and increased runoff of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides will degrade streams, rivers, lakes, groundwater and oceans.

Alternative diets offer health benefits

Tilman suggests that hope — and help — lie in the widespread adoption of alternative diets that offer substantial health benefits and could reduce global agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, reduce land clearing and resultant species extinctions and help prevent a variety of diet-related chronic noncommunicable diseases.

Comparing conventional American omnivorous diets to the Mediterranean diet, a pescetarian diet (in which fish is the only animal protein) and a vegetarian diet, the compiled research showed that the three alternatives to the omnivorous diet decreased Type 2 diabetes by 16 to 41 percent, cancer by 7 to 13 percent and morality rates from coronary heart disease by 20 to 26 percent. Moreover, the authors show that these alternative diets could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions from food production by about 40 percent below what they would be if dietary trends continued.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers gathered all published life-cycle assessments covering “cradle to farm gate” greenhouse gas emissions for production systems of food crops, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture — some 500 studies, of which about 220 were useful. They also gathered 50 years of data for 100 of the world’s more populous nations to analyze global dietary trends and their drivers, using that information to forecast future diets should past trends continue.

To quantify the effects of alternative diets on mortality and on Type 2 diabetes, cancer and chronic coronary heart disease, they summarized results of eight major long-term studies on diet and health. Finally, they combined those relationships with projected increases in global population to forecast global environmental implications of current dietary trajectories and calculate the environmental benefits of diets associated with reduced rates of chronic noncommunicable diseases.

“Better diets are the solution to these big problems,” Tilman says. “Only better diets can prevent a massive global epidemic of chronic noncontagious disease. These same diets would also protect the environment. Since big food companies produce so much of what is eaten, we need them to be part of this solution. By developing, producing and advertising foods that are healthy and tasty, these companies can help their customers, the earth and their bottom line. It is a niche waiting to be filled.”

Tilman wonders if unhealthy foods laden with fats or sugars might grow into a health issue somewhat like smoking. “Throughout history, foods that tasted good were almost always healthy but scarce. Now we have thousands of inexpensive manufactured foods that taste good because of an overabundance of sugar, fat or salt but are bad for us. What is the ethics of selling such foods now that we know how bad they are for heath and the environment?”

The research generated a number of nuanced findings about the environmental impacts of various dietary choices. The following are among them:

  • While the difference in greenhouse gas emissions for animal-based versus plant-based foods is well known, emissions per gram of protein for beef and lamb are about 250 times those of legumes; pork, chicken, dairy, and fish have much lower emissions;
  • Twenty servings of vegetables have fewer greenhouse gas emissions than one serving of beef.
  • Fish caught by trawling, which involves dragging fishnets along the ocean floor, can have three times the emissions of fish caught by traditional methods.
  • And among cereal grains, rice has five times the emissions per gram of protein as wheat.

These and other facts demonstrate that there are many diets that are both good for the environment and healthy.

While Tilman does not expect to see quick societal changes in diet, he hopes that the paper will be seen by the right people who can influence the food supply and that it “can encourage people to think about this challenge and have a dialogue it.”

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Environmental carcinogens leave genetic imprints in tumors


Chemically induced tumors bear signatures that differentiate them from genetically engineered cancers.

Genetically engineering tumors in mice, a technique that has dominated cancer research for decades, may not replicate important features of cancers caused by exposure to environmental carcinogens, according to a new study led by UC San Francisco scientists. In addition to pointing the way to better understanding of environmental causes of cancer, the findings may help explain why many patients do not benefit from, or develop resistance to, targeted drug therapies.

In the new research, reported Nov. 2 in the advance online edition of Nature, a team led by UCSF graduate student Peter M.K. Westcott found that chemically induced lung tumors in mice carry hundreds of point mutations — deleterious alterations of single “letters” in the genome — that are not present in tumors induced by genetic engineering. The researchers demonstrated that chemically induced tumors display a starkly different “mutational landscape” even when chemicals cause a tumor-initiating mutation that is identical to that created by direct genetic manipulation.

“Since the 1980s, when genetic engineering came along, the mouse model community has been working on genetically engineered cancer—you put a gene in or take a gene out, and you get a tumor,” said Allan Balmain, Ph.D., the Barbara Bass Bakar Distinguished Professor in Cancer Genetics at UCSF and senior author of the study. “But it’s only now that we’re beginning to analyze what has happened between that first engineered change and the ultimate development of an aggressive tumor.”

The new work made use of next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology, which allows researchers to analyze the genomic sequence of tumors or of normal tissue letter-by-letter. For the Nature study, the group used a form of NGS known as whole-exome sequencing, which comprehensively analyzes the portion of the genome that contains the code for producing proteins.

The findings dovetail well with those from NGS-based studies of human tumors, such as The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) initiative spearheaded by the National Cancer Institute and National Human Genome Research Institute, which have revealed mutational “signatures,” some of which can be definitively tied to environmental exposures. For example, distinctive patterns of point mutations are now known to differentiate lung cancer in smokers from that affecting non-smokers.

The results are also consistent with observations that tumors arising in human organs that are most directly exposed to environmental carcinogens — the skin, gastrointestinal system and lungs — are more prone to point mutations than more “protected” organs such as the brain, breast and prostate gland.

“We humans smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and spend too much time in the sun, all of which cause us to accumulate point mutations that are major determinants of the behavior of tumors, especially of how a tumor responds to therapy,” said Balmain, co-leader of the Cancer Genetics Program at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. “All this heterogeneity is being missed with genetically engineered tumors, because they don’t reflect these environmental effects.”

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Thirdhand smoke: Toxic airborne pollutants remain long after smoke clears


Researchers assess health impacts of inhalable constituents of thirdhand tobacco smoke.

Berkeley Lab researchers Lara Gundel and Hugo Destaillats found that thirdhand smoke continues to be harmful for hours after a cigarette has been extinguished.

Ever walked into a hotel room and smelled old cigarette smoke? While the last smoker may have left the room hours or even days ago, the lingering odors — resulting from noxious residue that clings to walls, carpets, furniture, or dust particles — are thanks to thirdhand smoke.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), who have made important findings on the dangers of thirdhand smoke and how it adsorbs strongly onto indoor surfaces, have published a new study assessing the health effects of thirdhand smoke constituents present in indoor air. Looking at levels of more than 50 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and airborne particles for 18 hours after smoking had taken place, they found that thirdhand smoke continues to have harmful health impacts for many hours after a cigarette has been extinguished.

“In the U.S., the home is now where nonsmokers are most exposed to second- and thirdhand smoke. The goal of our study is to provide information supporting effective protective measures in the home. The amount of harm is measurable even several hours after smoking ends,” said chemist Hugo Destaillats, lead author of the study. “Many smokers know secondhand smoke is harmful, so they don’t smoke when their kids are present. But if, for example, they stop smoking at 2 p.m. and the kids come home at 4 p.m., our work shows that up to 60 percent of the harm from inhaling thirdhand smoke remains.”

Their study, “Inhalable Constituents of Thirdhand Tobacco Smoke: Chemical Characterization and Health Impact Considerations,” has been published online in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. Other co-authors were Berkeley Lab scientists Mohamad Sleiman, Jennifer Logue, and Lara Gundel, and Portland State University professor James F. Pankow and researcher Wentai Luo.

The Berkeley Lab team has done previous studies establishing the formation of harmful thirdhand smoke constituents by reaction of nicotine with indoor nitrous acid, showing that nicotine can react with ozone to form potentially harmful ultrafine particles, and finding that thirdhand smoke can cause genetic damage in human cells. These studies focused primarily on chemical contaminants adsorbed to indoor surfaces, entering the human body through dermal uptake or ingestion of dust. The new study focuses on a third type of exposure, inhalation. The study shows that this route of exposure, even after the smoke dissipates, is also significant.

The team collected data from two environments: one was a room-sized chamber at Berkeley Lab where six cigarettes were machine-smoked and levels of particulate matter and 58 VOCs were monitored during an aging period of 18 hours; the second was a smoker’s home, where field measurements were made eight hours after the last cigarette was smoked. Logue led the health analysis, using an impact assessment approach that she has used for studying indoor air pollutants.

Berkeley Lab researcher Jennifer Logue

Health data was available for only about half of the measured chemicals. For those Logue used a metric called DALY, or disability-adjusted life year, to quantify the health impact. The DALY is commonly used by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others in the public health field as a way to combine loss of life with loss of quality of life in a single metric.

Looking at DALYs lost as a function of time, the study found that the total integrated harm rises sharply in the first five hours after a cigarette has been smoked, continues to rise for another five hours, and doesn’t start to level off until after 10 hours.

“We ranked the health damage due to each of the pollutants for which we had data,” Logue said. “We found that particulate matter, or PM2.5, accounted for 90 percent of the health damage.”

PM2.5, or particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, can be inhaled deeply into the lungs and cause serious health problems. The study identified also those tobacco VOCs with the highest health impacts, some of which exceeded concentrations considered harmful by the state of California over the entire 18-hour period.

The researchers caution that this was an initial scoping study, in which they had to rely on health data available for outdoor air particles. Common outdoor sources include vehicle exhaust, forest fires, and burning of fuels. “Tobacco particles have a different composition than outdoor air particles, but there are chemical similarities,” Gundel said. “This is a first-order approximation.”

Another purpose of the study was to better understand the transition between secondhand smoke and thirdhand smoke. Depending on the criteria used, the predicted health damage caused by thirdhand smoke could range from 5 percent to 60 percent of the total harm. “A lot of the harm attributed to secondhand smoke could be due to thirdhand smoke,” Gundel said. “Because there’s a gradual transition from one to the other, we don’t really know yet what the chronic effects of thirdhand smoke are.”

The study is part of a research agenda developed by the California Consortium on Thirdhand Smoke, which was established in 2011 largely as a result of work published in 2010 by Destaillats, Gundel, Sleiman and others. The consortium, which includes researchers from Berkeley Lab, UC San Francisco, UC Riverside, the University of Southern California and San Diego State University, is funded by the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, managed by the University of California. Its goals are better understanding the health effects of thirdhand smoke, identifying the most effective control policies and practices to protect nonsmokers, and developing methods to remediate indoor environments contaminated with thirdhand smoke.

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Improving border health


Bioregional approach involves health care, city planning, ecological restoration.

In a paper published this week online in Global Society, researchers with the UC San Diego School of Medicine and the Urban Studies and Planning Program, also at UC San Diego, present a bioregional guide that merges place-based (territorial) city planning and ecosystem management along the United States-Mexico border as way to improve human and environmental health.

Issues like climate change, economic crisis, natural disasters and disease outbreaks do not stop at national borders, compelling public health officials, academics and researchers to think differently about how to address wide-ranging human health challenges.

“City planners, health officials and researchers are combining knowledge and action in new ways to promote healthy placemaking,” said Keith Pezzoli, Ph.D., UC San Diego Department of Communication and director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program. “Our health is not entirely hardwired genetically. It is also affected by environmental exposures, stress, diet, urban design and behavior. In our region, we can’t think about health on just one side of the border because animals, sick people and pollutants move back and forth.”

In border towns, health risks are common on both sides of the border. In the paper, Pezzoli, with co-authors Wael K. Al-Delaimy, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chief of the Division of Global Health in the UC San Diego Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, and Catherine Wood Larsen, staff research associate in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, recommend supporting ecological restoration in transborder metropolitan areas where urban sprawl is taking place, such as in the canyon communities of Tijuana, Baja California.

In a related paper, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health on Sept. 15, Pezzoli, Al-Delaimy and Larsen looked at the impact of the environment on residents of Tijuana’s rapidly urbanizing settlement called Los Laureles Canyon. This was the first large scale investigation evaluating the health of this population.

In one decade, the area grew from zero residents to 70,000, forming multiple communities called “colonias.” These settlements do not typically comply with standard building codes and are without basic infrastructure, such as a sewer system, trash collection or paved roads. Many unregulated dumpsites dot the area, often containing a variety of hazardous waste from industry, construction and household garbage.

With Alter Terra (a binational non-governmental organization), the UC San Diego Superfund Research Center, the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, researchers interviewed residents of Los Laureles Canyon about their well-being and any symptoms of illness. The occupants of the 4.6-square-mile area, a sub-basin of the binational Tijuana River Basin, reported skin problems, stomach discomforts, eye irritation, confusion/difficulty concentrating and extreme fatigue, which are symptoms commonly associated with exposure to environmental toxins.

“We have people who are living in dismal situations surrounded by dump sites,” said Al-Delaimy, who was the principal investigator on the study. “Their houses are made of garage doors brought from the U.S. and other materials that are mismatched. This is an environmental injustice that is impacting their health and has consequences for the San Diego region as well.”

For example, the ecological health of the Tijuana River Estuary in San Diego County depends upon what happens in the Tijuana River Basin. Toxins in upstream soils can contaminate rain runoff from Los Laureles Canyon, which eventually drains north to the U.S. and into the Pacific Ocean.

“We are joined together to Mexico through the watershed,” said Pezzoli. “We are in it together because of land, buildings and streets, but also from a health perspective because disease doesn’t stop at the border. The failure of control measures in one country has the potential to put neighboring communities at risk.”

To achieve an interconnected healthy bioregion, the scientists said public health professionals need training in global health diplomacy and cooperation. In addition, universities, through programs like the UC San Diego Superfund Research Center, must integrate community engagement and basic research translation through a cross-border approach. Creating sustainable and resilient communities, even across national borders, is possible by fostering investment in natural resources, rooted livelihoods and institutions, they said.

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UC Davis names Future of Nursing Scholars recipient


New scholarship program will increase the number of doctorally prepared nurses.

Sarah Brown Blake, UC Davis

Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing graduate student Sarah Brown Blake is among the 16 nurses who are the first recipients of the Future of Nursing Scholars program awards. This new multifunder scholarship program, spearheaded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), is aimed at increasing the number of doctorally prepared nurses. Brown Blake’s scholarship is funded by RWJF and was awarded by UC Davis.

Brown Blake intends to focus her doctoral research on exploring environmental health disparities. She is particularly concerned about issues related to clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and the impact of water contamination on the health of rural and agricultural communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Brown Blake completed the interprofessional and innovative Master of Science — Leadership in Nursing Science and Health-Care Leadership Graduate Degree Program at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis in spring 2014. Prior to that, Brown Blake was a public health nurse with the Arlington County Health Department in Arlington, Virginia, where she specialized in maternal, child and adolescent health.

“I am tremendously grateful to receive this scholarship and other support from the RWJF. I have no doubt that this opportunity will significantly impact my career as a future researcher, educator and nurse leader,” Brown Blake said.

The Future of Nursing Scholars program provides grants to schools of nursing so that they can provide scholarships to doctoral students who commit to completing the program in three years. Brown Blake will receive an award of $75,000, as well as mentoring and leadership development over the course of the Doctor of Philosophy program.

“We are honored to be included as one of the first nursing schools to receive the Future of Nursing Scholars grants, especially as a new school that this year graduated our first Doctors of Philosophy,” said Heather M. Young, associate vice chancellor for nursing and dean of the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis. “Being a part of the Future for Nursing: Campaign for Action has brought home to me the importance of increasing the number of doctorally prepared nurses in the nation. This effort goes a long way toward promoting that goal. It’s a wonderful way to create community among doctoral scholars who will be our future leaders.”

In addition to RWJF, Independence Blue Cross Foundation, United Health Foundation, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and the Rhode Island Foundation are supporting the Future of Nursing Scholars grants to schools of nursing this year.

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Antibacterial soap exposes hospital workers to high triclosan levels


UCSF-led study finds exposure to hormone disruptor from soap exceeds that from toothpaste.

Handwashing with antibacterial soap exposes hospital workers to significant and potentially unsafe levels of triclosan, a widely used chemical currently under review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to a study led by researchers from UC San Francisco.

Triclosan, a synthetic antibacterial agent, is found in thousands of consumer products, including soaps, cosmetics, acne creams and some brands of toothpaste. The FDA is reviewing its safety based on a growing body of research indicating that it can interfere with the action of hormones, potentially causing developmental problems in fetuses and newborns, among other health concerns.

In the current study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers analyzed urine samples from two groups of 38 doctors and nurses – three-fourths of them women – at two hospitals, identified as Hospital 1 and Hospital 2. Hospital 1 used an antibacterial soap containing 0.3 percent triclosan, while Hospital 2 used plain soap and water.

Workers at Hospital 1 had significantly higher levels of triclosan in their urine than workers at Hospital 2.

The scientists also asked the study participants if they used a popular commercial toothpaste containing triclosan. While those who did had higher triclosan levels than those who did not, the researchers found that washing with antibacterial soap accounted for even higher triclosan levels than did brushing with the toothpaste.

“Antimicrobial soaps can carry unknown risks, and triclosan is of particular concern,” said co-investigator Paul Blanc, M.D., a professor of medicine at UCSF who holds the Endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “Our study shows that people absorb this chemical at work and at home, depending on the products that they use.”

Blanc recommended that “if non-triclosan-containing soaps are available, use the alternative. This is based on the precautionary principle – that is, if you don’t know for certain that something is unsafe, it’s better to err on the side of caution.”

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Auto-rickshaw helps monitor India’s deadly air pollution


Berkeley Lab’s research in India will help develop global strategies for air pollution.

What exactly is the relationship between exposure to air pollution and its effect on human health? How much cleaner would the air have to be to reduce the health burden of dirty air? Can cities be designed so as to minimize the flow of air pollution?

There is still a lot that scientists don’t know about air pollution, but the severe pollution common in much of India offers scientists an opportunity to better understand its causes and effects. The Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researcher Josh Apte is developing some unique approaches to studying air pollution in India and hopes to apply what he learns to developing global strategies for combating it.

Although India uses the same air monitoring techniques that are standard throughout the world to measure ambient air pollution in major cities, such techniques don’t give residents or scientists enough actionable information, in Apte’s judgment. “A big limitation with ambient monitoring is it doesn’t tell you what people actually breathe,” he said. “It gives you some indication of the overall level of air pollution in a city, but it doesn’t tell you where the hot spots are, and it doesn’t tell you the locations where people are getting the bulk of air pollution exposure.”

Air pollution is the number five risk factor for premature death in India, causing three times as many deaths as AIDS and malaria combined. “One thing we can say with quite a bit of certainty is that air pollution is a major risk for premature death in India,” Apte said. “Air pollution now kills more people than poor water and sanitation, which historically has been a major cause of death in India.”

Specifically, the pollutant that is most harmful to human health is fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, for particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. These particles are not visible to the naked eye and can be inhaled deeply into the lungs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers an annual average concentration in excess of 12 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 to be a health concern, whereas average annual levels in India are on the order of 50 to 150 micrograms per cubic meter, according to Apte.

The primary sources of PM2.5 in India are similar to those of other countries—vehicle tailpipes, power plants and certain industrial processes. Indian cities and rural areas also have significant unregulated sources, including brick kilns, diesel backup generators, trash burning and wood-burning cookstoves.

To better measure the types and levels of pollutants that people are breathing, Apte hired an auto-rickshaw and drove it around the roads and highways of New Delhi for four months. The vehicle was outfitted with sensors placed at face height to more precisely measure what a person would inhale. He took two- to three-hour trips every day during the morning and evening rush hours.

Apte, Berkeley Lab researcher Thomas Kirchstetter, and a group of international collaborators collected more than 200 hours of real-time measurements of three types of pollutants: PM2.5, black carbon and ultrafine particles. “The levels of air pollution are truly astounding,” he said. “These are some of the highest levels of air pollution that have ever been measured in traffic anywhere in the world.”

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DDT linked to slow metabolism, obesity and diabetes


Study shows developmental exposure to DDT can affect female offspring.

Exposure of pregnant mice to the pesticide DDT is linked to an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and related conditions in female offspring later in life, according to a study led by the University of California, Davis.

The study, published online today (July 30) in the journal PLOS ONE, is the first to show that developmental exposure to DDT increases the risk of females later developing metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that include increased body fat, blood glucose and cholesterol.

DDT was banned in the United States in the 1970s but continues to be used for malaria control in countries including India and South Africa.

Scientists gave mice doses of DDT comparable to exposures of people living in malaria-infested regions where it is regularly sprayed, as well as of pregnant mothers of U.S. adults who are now in their 50s.

“The women and men this study is most applicable to in the United States are currently at the age when they’re more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, because these are diseases of middle- to late adulthood,” said lead author Michele La Merrill, assistant professor of environmental toxicology at UC Davis.

The scientists found that exposure to DDT before birth slowed the metabolism of female mice and lowered their tolerance of cold temperature. This increased their likelihood of developing metabolic syndrome and its host of related conditions.

“As mammals, we have to regulate our body temperature in order to live,” La Merrill said. “We found that DDT reduced female mice’s ability to generate heat. If you’re not generating as much heat as the next guy, instead of burning calories, you’re storing them.”

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Marine bacteria are natural source of chemical fire retardants


UC San Diego findings ‘very surprising and a tad alarming.’

Bradley Moore (left), UC San Diego

Researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine have discovered a widely distributed group of marine bacteria that produce compounds nearly identical to toxic manmade fire retardants.

Among the chemicals produced by the ocean-dwelling microbes, which have been found in habitats as diverse as sea grasses, marine sediments and corals, is a potent endocrine disruptor that mimics the human body’s most active thyroid hormone.

The study is published in today’s (June 29) online issue of Nature Chemical Biology.

“We find it very surprising and a tad alarming that flame retardant-like chemicals are biologically synthesized by common bacteria in the marine environment,” said senior author Bradley Moore, Ph.D., a professor at the UC San Diego Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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