Young girl with an inhaler.

Astounding childhood asthma rates in Hidalgo County – among the highest in the state – and research linking childhood asthma to prenatal exposure to air pollution has prompted a team of Texas A&M Health Science Center researchers to dig deeper into the issue.

An increase in industrial expansion and trade has led to higher air pollution along the Texas-Mexico border. Astounding childhood asthma rates in Hidalgo County – among the highest in the state – and research linking childhood asthma to prenatal exposure to air pollution has prompted a team of Texas A&M Health Science Center researchers to dig deeper into the issue with an end-goal of developing intervention strategies to combat the adverse effects of air pollution.

Natalie Johnson, Ph.D., Genny Carrillo, M.D., Sc.D., and public health graduate student Jairus Pulczinski, all with the Texas A&M School of Public Health, along with Josias Zietsman, Ph.D, P.E., of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and Patrick Breyssee, M.A., Ph.D., and Kirsten Koehler, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins University, will conduct a pilot project in McAllen, Texas, to gather additional information on the types and levels of prenatal air pollutant exposure.

The team will characterize pollutant exposure by monitoring amounts and types of traffic in the area. Using Environmental Protection Agency models, they will study dispersion of pollutants into the atmosphere, giving them a better understanding of the pollutant concentrations in South Texas.

With help from Rio Grande Regional Hospital OB/GYN clinics, the team will then measure personal air pollution exposures for 25 expecting women who will wear backpack monitors that will measure pollutant concentrations in various environments, including their homes, workplaces and outdoors. This information will help researchers determine the frequency with which pregnant women are exposed to pollutants, and when and where the exposure is highest. Finally, they will examine biological markers of pollutant exposure through blood, urine and hair samples. This will help the researchers determine how the pollutants physically affect those who are exposed to them on a regular basis.

“The data collected by this pilot research project will be used to characterize air pollution exposure in South Texas, which will assist in determining appropriate intervention options in the future,” Johnson said.

The study is part of the Texas A&M Healthy South Texas 2025 Initiative, an unprecedented effort to reduce preventable diseases and their consequences in South Texas by 25 percent by the year 2025. The initiative’s initial focus will be on diseases of highest impact in South Texas, including diabetes, asthma and infectious diseases, with the goal of improving the wellness of South Texans for generations to come.

This research project is supported through funding from the Texas A&M Health Science Center, Texas Transportation Institute and Johns Hopkins University.

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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