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Home » News » Exposures to Metals and Diesel Emissions in the Air Are Linked to Respiratory Symptoms in Young Inner City Children 11/23/2009

Exposures to Metals and Diesel Emissions in the Air Are Linked to Respiratory Symptoms in Young Inner City Children

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November 23, 2009 -- Exposure shortly after birth to ambient metals from residential heating oil combustion and particles from diesel emissions are associated with respiratory symptoms in young inner city children, according to a new study by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.  The study is the first to analyze the effects of exposure to airborne metals in this very young population and the findings could have important public health implications.

Published in the December 2009 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the study also contributes to a further understanding of how specific sources of air pollution may impact child health.

The study compared pollutant levels with respiratory symptoms of children between birth and age two living in Northern Manhattan and in the South Bronx, and found that the airborne metals nickel and vanadium, were risk factors for wheezing in young children.  Residual oil combustion for heating is a major source in New York City of these metals.  Elemental carbon, an indicator of diesel exhaust, was associated with increased frequency of coughing only during cold and flu season (September through April). 

“It appears that exposure to ambient metals and diesel-exhaust particles in our air may lead to several respiratory symptoms for young children living in urban areas,” said Rachel L. Miller, MD, associate professor of Medicine and Environmental Health Sciences (in Pediatrics) at New York–Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center and co-deputy director of CCCEH at the Mailman School of Public Health and senior investigator on the study.  “The effects of exposure to airborne metals had not been studied previously in children so young, and these findings could have important public health implications for members of inner-city communities in New York City and elsewhere.”

“These findings increase our understanding of the effects of specific pollutants from heating oil combustion and traffic on respiratory health in very young children,” said Molini M. Patel, PhD, MPH, lead author and previously a research scientist in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and a CCCEH investigator.  “Our results are of concern especially because levels of nickel in our study area, Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx, are among the highest in New York City and in the U.S., as are the rates of pediatric asthma.”

The investigators controlled for exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke, sex, ethnicity, and seasonal trends, all of which have been linked to increased respiratory symptoms and asthma in other studies. 

The study is part of a broader multi-year research project launched in 1998 by CCCEH that examines the health effects of exposure of pregnant women and their children to indoor and outdoor air pollutants, allergens, and chemicals. 

The Center’s prior research showed that exposure to multiple environmental pollutants may be associated with an increase in risk for asthma symptoms among children. The researchers suggest that improved regulatory action directed at specific pollution sources—such as reducing residential boiler emissions and traffic of airborne pollutants such as nickel or elemental carbon—is needed to help protect young children living in urban areas.  A prospective follow-up of this birth cohort and measurement of residential levels of metals and traffic-related particles will help determine whether exposures to these pollutants are associated with increased respiratory morbidity and development of asthma at later ages, according to the researchers.

Other investigators on the study include Lori Hoepner, MPH, Robin Garfinkel, PhD, Steven Chillrud, PhD, Andria Reyes, MA, James W. Quinn, PhD, and Frederica Perera, DrPH, Mailman School professor of Environmental Health Sciences and director of CCCEH.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and several private foundations.

About the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health

The Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health --part of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health -- is a leading research organization dedicated to understanding and preventing environmentally related disease in children. Founded in 1998, the Center conducts research in New York City, including the study of mothers and children in Northern Manhattan and South Bronx, a World Trade Center Study, as well as cohort studies in Krakow, Poland, and Chongqing, China. Its mission is to improve the respiratory health and cognitive development of children and to reduce their cancer risk by identifying environmental toxicants and conditions related to poverty that increase their risk of disease. In NYC, the Center collaborates with residents and partner organizations in Washington Heights, Harlem and the South Bronx to share research findings with the local communities in ways that are meaningful and usable in daily life. The CCCEH is one of several National Centers funded by the NIEHS and EPA and one of three Disease Investigation through Specialized Clinically-Oriented Ventures In Environmental Research (DISCOVER) Centers funded by the NIEHS. www.ccceh.org.

About the Mailman School of Public Health

The only accredited school of public health in New York City and among the first in the nation, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting millions of people locally and globally. The Mailman School is the recipient of some of the largest government and private grants in Columbia University’s history. Its more than 1000 graduate students pursue master’s and doctoral degrees, and the School’s 300 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as infectious and chronic diseases, health promotion and disease prevention, environmental health, maternal and child health, health over the life course, health policy, and public health preparedness. www.mailman.columbia.edu

Columbia University Medical Center

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, pre-clinical and clinical research, in medical and health sciences education, and in patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians & Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Established in 1767, Columbia’s College of Physicians & Surgeons was the first institution in the country to grant the M.D. degree. Among the most selective medical schools in the country, the school is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York State and one of the largest in the country. For more information, please visit www.cumc.columbia.edu.

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NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, based in New York City, is the nation's largest not-for-profit, non-sectarian hospital, with 2,242 beds. The Hospital has nearly 2 million inpatient and outpatient visits in a year, including more than 230,000 visits to its emergency departments — more than any other area hospital. NewYork-Presbyterian provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine at five major centers: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/The Allen Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Westchester Division. One of the largest and most comprehensive health care institutions in the world, the Hospital is committed to excellence in patient care, research, education and community service. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area and is consistently ranked among the best academic medical institutions in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report. The Hospital has academic affiliations with two of the nation's leading medical colleges: Weill Cornell Medical College and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. For more information, visit www.nyp.org.