March 9, 2011

Emory to partner for clean air research

Paige Tolbert, professor and chair of environmental health at Rollins School of Public Health, will co-direct the center. Photo by Jack Kearse.

Five-year, $8 million grant creates new joint center studying air pollution and health impacts

By Holly Korschun

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a five-year grant of $8 million to Emory and the Georgia Institute of Technology to create one of four national Clean Air Research Centers addressing the public health impacts of air pollution.

The Emory/Georgia Tech center, named the Southeastern Center for Air Pollution and Epidemiology (SCAPE), will characterize ambient air pollution mixtures and determine their specific role in human health risks, using new measurement and modeling approaches.

The overall goal of the center is to contribute to improved management of air quality for the benefit of human health in the United States.

Researchers at Rollins School of Public Health will analyze data linking air quality with health endpoints in children and adults, including birth outcomes, asthma, and cardiac illness.

Air quality engineers and scientists from Georgia Tech will identify and track atmospheric contaminants and mixtures of these contaminants suspected of having adverse health effects.

Together, researchers will characterize pollution mixtures based on mechanism of action and sources of pollutants in studies ranging from micro-scale assessments to comparisons of cities across the nation. A particular focus will be studying the health effects of mixtures of pollutants in the atmosphere to which people are realistically exposed.

The center will be directed by Paige Tolbert, professor and chair of environmental health at Rollins School of Public Health, and Armistead (Ted) Russell, Georgia Power Distinguished Professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech.

"Using novel approaches to characterize air quality and exciting new ways to assess health endpoints, we hope to make major breakthroughs in understanding health effects of ambient air pollution," says Tolbert.

"Specifically, we anticipate that we'll achieve insights into what aspects of the air pollution mixture are most harmful and how the pollutants act together, information that can be directly used to target control measures to most effectively protect the public's health."

Researchers in the new center will work on four interrelated projects:

1. The SCAPE team will develop and deploy new instrumentation to measure oxidants and other pollutants suspected of causing adverse health effects. The project will focus on how these pollutants are generated, transformed and distributed and will characterize ambient air pollution for the three health studies.

2. As commuting times and congestion increase, there is growing concern about the health effects of traffic emissions. Emory and Georgia Tech researchers will conduct an intensive study of commuters in the metro Atlanta area to examine exposure to complex particulate mixtures during auto commuting and mechanisms of acute cardiorespiratory outcomes. The study will be among the first to measure several highly sensitive, non-invasive biomarkers of oxidative stress in relation to air pollution exposure.

3. The project will focus on consequences of early life exposures on the health of children. Researchers will study two birth cohorts to assess whether air pollution mixtures during pregnancy increase risk for preterm delivery or reduced birth weight, whether children born prematurely are more sensitive to ambient air pollution, and whether air pollution exposures in the first year of life put children at greater risk of developing asthma.

4. Researchers will study air quality and acute health outcomes in five U.S. cities. The goal is to understand how differences in the mix of air pollutants, weather, population susceptibility and other factors explain differences in the association between air pollution and cardiac and respiratory illness across the cities. The results will clarify the combined impact of these factors on acute cardiorespiratory morbidity across the United States.

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