Science Wednesday: Clear Air for All? EPA Seminar Focuses on Research Exploring How Social, Geographic Differences Impact Air Quality

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By Rachel Canfield

When Representative Donna Edwards (Maryland’s 4th District) addressed the audience at EPA’s Air Science 40 seminar, Clean Air for All? Air Quality across Social and Spatial Lines, she talked about how she and her young son would wait for the bus every morning close to a highway.

On July 21, government, industry, academic and the non-profit audiences gathered as scientists shared their research on how air pollution impacts populations based on social, environmental and geographic differences.

Marie Lynn Miranda, Ph.D., from Duke University’s Children’s Environmental Health Initiative presented EPA-funded research that looks at the shared effect of social and environmental factors, including air pollution, on pregnancy outcomes.

Miranda described studies that show exposure to fine particulate matter (PM) decreased birth weight, and exposures to ozone and PM in combination weakens lung function in newborns. The effects of these air pollution exposures don’t always end at infancy and can lead to more long-term health consequences. According to Miranda, social stress and closeness to busy roads can also increase health risks for pregnant mothers and their babies.

EPA scientist Alan Vette, Ph.D. emphasized how distance from roadways affects air pollution exposure and health, presenting some of EPA’s Near-Road Research Program’s work. Vette explained the importance of such studies, as over 45 million Americans live near an airport, railroad or highway.

Vette described a number of traffic-related air pollution studies EPA conducts throughout the U.S., including a new, collaborative study with the University of Michigan and Community Action Against Asthma. The study, the Near-Road Exposures to Urban Air Pollutants Study, will look at how vehicle emissions affect asthmatic children who live near busy roadways in Detroit, Michigan. According to Vette, asthma rates in Detroit are 29%–three times the national average.

As they spoke, I wondered what my house’s distance from the highway is and how often I hear a train whistle when I walk through campus. Air pollution doesn’t affect everyone in the same ways, our locations and lifestyles create unique situations for our lungs and interesting scientific challenges for EPA scientists to uncover.

About the author: Rachel Canfield is a student services contractor in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. She is a graduate student in communication at North Carolina State University.