Science + Technology

Clean air standards must consider pregnant women, infants, small children

Environmental report card highlights research on vulnerable populations

Agrowing body of evidence linking prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollution to premature birth, lower birth weight, birth defects and respiratory diseases in early life highlights the need forregulators to consider the special vulnerability of these developmental periods when formulating air quality regulations,according toresearchers at UCLA's Institute of the Environment.
While commending significant improvements inSouthern California air quality resulting from increasingly stringent regulation over the past 30 years, the researchers note in their Dec. 3 Southern California Environmental Report Cardthat the health effects of air pollution on pregnant women, infants and preschool-age children are currently not taken into account when state or federal regulators set clean-air standards.
"To achieve air clean enough to have only negligible effects on pregnancy and infants' and young children's health will likely require drastic changes to motor vehicles and transportation systems, as well as industrial processes, all of which may take many years or decades," said Beate Ritz, a UCLA School of Public Health epidemiologist affiliated with the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. "Until further policies are implemented, these vulnerable populations will continue to suffer from higher morbidity and mortality."
Ritz and Michelle Wilhelm, an assistant professor-in-residence at the UCLA School of Public Health, reviewed the state of epidemiologic air-quality research for the quarterly environmental report card, released by the UCLA Institute of the Environment. The institute's signature publication, the report card, which was previously released annually, is intended to analyze data in a format useful to the general public and policymakers and to stimulate debate on policies aimed at environmental protection.
"Few environmental challenges carry as much significance to the long-term future of Southern California as the effect of air pollution on the health of pregnant women, infants and young children," said the institute's acting director,Thomas B. Smith, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
In the report, Ritz and Wilhelm emphasize that the period between conception and birth and the early childhood years are especially critical times of human biological developmentwhen the environment may have both immediate and long-term consequences on health.
They said that their own previously published researchand that of other scientists provides growing evidence that air pollution exposures in pregnancy and early childhood put children at increased riskof adverse health outcomes. But the field is relatively new, with the bulk of research conducted only within the past decade, Ritz and Wilhelm said.
The researchers said that little is known about exactly which compounds in the air most affect reproductive and young children's health or the biologic mechanisms by which the pollutants do damage. They urged additional research in the emerging field.
"In the meantime, there is certainly sufficient evidence to warrant consideration of the health of pregnant women, infants and small children when regulators develop clean air standards," Ritz said.
The researchers gave a grade of "C" for Southern California's air pollution in relation to the health of pregnant women, infants and young children.
The UCLA Institute of the Environment, founded in 1997, seeks to generate knowledge and provide solutions for regional and global environmental problems and to educate the next generation of professional leaders committed to the health of the planet. The instituteincludes faculty from multiple academic divisions and professional schools, such as public health, engineering, management, atmospheric sciences, ecology and evolutionary biology, law, and urban planning. Through the institute and six academic departments, UCLA began offering an innovative multidisciplinary major in environmental science in the fall of 2006.
Media Contact