Emory Report

October 4, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 7

Study looks at pollution, heart and lung disease links

Does air pollution contribute to heart or lung problems? If so, how?

Environmental health researchers at the School of Public Health are collaborating with Harvard University researchers to examine the possible relation between air pollution and cardiac or pulmonary conditions. Emory principal investigator P. Barry Ryan, professor of environmental and occupational health, is working closely with Helen Suh, principal investigator for the Harvard component of the study.

"Epidemiologic studies have shown significant associations between particulate exposures and increased morbidity and mortality," the researchers said in their protocol summary. "Findings from these health studies have raised concerns about the sufficiency of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for particulate matter."

According to Ryan and his Harvard colleagues, these concerns have been difficult to address since relatively little is known about the composition of the air pollution to which groups evaluated in previous studies were exposed. Subjects in those studies included adults with chronic lung disease and children. The solid, particulate matter and gases that pollute indoor and outside air vary from region to region, as do factors--lifestyle, occupation, etc.--that put people at risk for higher exposures to polluted environments.

"Furthermore, factors affecting the relationship between previous study subjects' personal particulate and gaseous exposure and the corresponding outdoor concentrations have not been thoroughly investigated or identified," the summary said.

To investigate these issues, the Emory/Harvard team will analyze pollutants present in the indoor and outdoor air environments of adults they suspect may be at particular risk for the ill effects of air pollution: those who have experienced a heart attack or who have been diagnosed with the lung disorder known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Monitors will be placed in the homes of study subjects, and the subjects themselves will be asked to carry portable monitoring devices for two weeks in the fall and the spring.

Of most interest to the researchers will be levels and sizes of particulate matter such as the inorganic ions of nitrate and sulfate, and trace metals (these compounds become so small--fewer than 2.5 microns in diameter--they become breathable and a threat to the lungs) and gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, all irritants known to decrease lung function.

Study subjects also will receive EKG tests, to be administered in their homes by investigators. The researchers hope to recruit persons able to participate in both week-long study sessions. Volunteers who complete one or both study sessions will receive financial compensation. The Emory team hopes to monitor 15 people with COPD and 10 recent heart attack victims.

"Atlanta's pollutant mix is substantially different from those of the northeastern cities previously monitored," Ryan said. "This, coupled with the inclusion of a new group of sensitive individuals (cardiac patients), represents a step forward in the data collection needed to understand this problem."

To volunteer for the Atlanta study, contact study co-investigator Czerne Reid at the School of Public Health, 404-727-3697.

-Lorri Preston

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