What’s in the Air?

By Sarah Blau

Today when I step outside after a long day of work, I will draw in a nice deep breath of fresh air….hmmm, I wonder what I am actually inhaling?

Oh, there’s definitely some oxygen in there, and probably some nitrogen and carbon dioxide too – I hear these things are common in air. But what with the cars zooming out of the parking lot, the groundskeepers spraying the shrubs, and the commuter bus making its daily rounds, I’m guessing there are chemicals going into my body that I’ve never even heard of.

The point is, pollution doesn’t affect people one chemical at a time. There is a whole plethora of chemicals floating around out there (most common air pollutants) and we want to know what they are going to do in our bodies!

This is why in early March I was excited to attend the Society of Toxicology’s Annual Meeting where EPA announced the creation of four new Clean Air Research Centers (CLARCs). One of the main goals of the centers is to research air pollution mixtures and how those mixtures affect our bodies.

Each of the four university-based CLARCs will receive $8 million over a 5-year grant period. The research centers are located at: Harvard University, Michigan State University, University of Washington, and a combined effort from Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Each CLARC will have its own research focus, but the overarching theme of their research projects will be to better understand the health risks associated with air pollution and mixtures. More specific projects include studying the connections between air pollution and obesity, investigating how roadway pollution affects heart and lung health, researching how pollution mixtures and their associated health affects vary by location, and looking at how air pollution affects the human body during different life stages.

The four CLARCs will conduct cutting-edge research to answer a myriad of questions we have about air pollution. Questions such as: Are children born prematurely sensitive to air pollution, Can your morning commute make you sick, Does air pollution affect your child’s learning, or Does obesity make you susceptible to health effects of air pollution?

After hearing the EPA announcement about these centers and all the research projects they intend to conduct, I am looking forward to the day when I will actually know what I am breathing in – and what it is doing to my body – when I step outside after a long day of work and take a nice deep breath of fresh air.

About the author: Writer Sarah Blau is a student services contractor working with EPA’s science communication team.

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