Air Solutions

If the old adage "a breath of fresh air will do you good" still
holds true, so does the opposite: Where air pollution is high, so are
rates of illness and death.  

Prof. Wexler studies the effects of air pollutants.
(Photo courtesy of Aldridge, UC Davis)

studies show that about 50,000 people are dying per year in this
country as a result of breathing particles in the air," says Anthony
Wexler, a mechanical and aeronautical engineering, civil and
environmental engineering, and land, air and water resources professor
at UC Davis and director of the campus's Air Quality Research Center.

isn't known is why. Which particles are the worst offenders? How
exactly do they impact the bodies they're breathed into? What are the
long-term effects of air pollution on developing lungs?

answer these questions, Wexler and his colleague Kent Pinkerton,
professor of anatomy, physiology, and cell biology in the School of
Veterinary Medicine, are co-directing UC Davis's new San Joaquin Valley
Aerosol Health Effects Center. Established last November with an $8
million dollar grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, it is
one of five centers around the country which will share $40 million
dollars over the next five years. All five centers will be working on
establishing links between different sources and types of air pollution
and their health effects.

"It's increasingly expensive to
control air pollution. We want to be able to target what are the
sources or types of air pollution that are causing the most harm in
terms of health impact," explains Gail Robarge, Assistant Center
Director for Air in the EPA's National Center for Environmental

If identifying the air's most damaging
particulates will make regulating pollution a more exact and less
expensive proposition, Robarge says, then knowing how those pollutants
affect the body will enable doctors and public health officials to
better protect susceptible populations, especially children, whom
earlier studies at UC Davis have shown to be more vulnerable to
environmental pollutants than adults.

The new center at UC
Davis, one of the four CITRIS campuses, will initially focus on five
main areas of research. The first two will examine how air pollution
affects pulmonary and cardiovascular systems by exposing heart and lung
tissues respond to various particles and studying the effects.

Many commuters who pass through Pleasanton, California live over 75 miles away from their place of work.

what exactly it is about the pollution that's causing health problems
is the subject of the third area of research. For this, rats at a
remote station in Fresno will be exposed to concentrated amounts of
polluted air from the region and then closely monitored for
physiological changes. "We'll be measuring the air pollution very
carefully'size, distribution, chemical composition'then hopefully see
when the animals are worse and figure out what part of the air
pollution is causing them to get worse," says Wexler.

fourth and fifth areas of research, according to Wexler, "think outside
the box." One poses the question of where particles go once they're
inside the body. To track them, UC Davis researchers will design
particles that are similar to what's in the air, only outfitted with
radiological properties so they can be seen on a CT scan or MRI. The
custom-made particles will be breathed by rats and then traced as they
make their way through the animals' bodies.

The last
project focuses on how pollution impacts lung development. Already
studies at the University of Southern California and UC Davis have
shown that early exposure to pollutants can lead to permanent lung
damage. "The childhood asthma rate is skyrocketing in certain parts of
the world, including Fresno. One reason is that people are being
exposed to pollution early in life," says Wexler. He hopes that by
looking at how pollution impacts the lungs between birth and adulthood
will provide insight into the reasons behind the damage and what can be
done to reverse the trend.

With more than 60 researchers
dedicated to studying air pollution and a leadership position in the
area of environmental studies, UC Davis was an obvious choice to host
one of the five centers. But there was another, perhaps more pressing
reason, to locate it there: geography. The San Joaquin Valley, where
the new center is located, has some of the highest levels of air
pollution in the country.

"Fresno and the whole San
Joaquin Valley's air quality is getting worse all the time. As the
population and transportation increases, it's just going to get worse
and worse," says Wexler. That, he says, makes it an ideal place to
study the problem as well as implement solutions.

points out that the benefits of the center's work will spread beyond
the region. As the eastern U.S. cuts back on sulfates from coal burning
power plants, the mix of particles in the air will increasingly
resemble that of California. "While research studying the Valley now is
primarily relevant to California air pollution control, we hope a lot
of what they do will be applicable across the country in the future,"
she says.


For more information:

National Center for Environmental Research: Airborne Particulate Matter Research Centers

Anthony Wexler's Home Page

UC Davis Wins $8 Million EPA Grant to Study Health Effects of Air Pollution
(UC Davis News & Information, November 15, 2005)

Trough-like San Joaquin Valley suffering in smog
(USA Today, 08/10/2002)

San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District