Masks hanging in backyard to dry.

UCLA-led Research Finds Connections Between Air Quality and COVID Vulnerability

Even as governments across the United States consider lifting mask mandates and relaxing preventative measures as vaccination numbers creep up, new research from a UCLA-led team has found that such basic techniques significantly reduce the risk of getting COVID-19.

In addition, the research found that U.S. counties with higher exposures to poor air quality, historically, saw higher county-level COVID-19 mortality rates in 2020, with a 7.6% increase in in COVID-19 risk with a one-unit increase of 2.5 micrometers (µm), or PM2.5. The use of preventative measures – like stay home orders and masking – reduced the risk of COVID-19 by 8% and 15%, respectively, but did not reduce the increase of incidence in counties with poor air quality.

“This is evidence that long-term exposure to poor air quality increased the risk of COVID-19, during each surge, and cumulatively, in the United States,” said Dr. Zuo-Feng Zhang, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health (FSPH) distinguished professor of epidemiology and associate dean for research. “And although both state-level implementation of facemasks mandates and stay home orders were effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, no clear effects were observed in terms of long-term exposure to fine particulate matter.”

The research – “Long-Term Exposure to PM2.5, Facemask Mandates, Stay Home Orders and COVID-19 Incidence in the United States” – is being published in the June edition of the peer-reviewed International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The co-authors include researchers from UCLA, FSPH, the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the State University of New York, Buffalo.

Both the importance of improving air quality and protective measures should be considered as among the “lessons learned” from the pandemic for policy makers and the public, said Dr. Jody Heymann, a UCLA distinguished professor of public health, public policy, and medicine, and a co-author.

“The burden of environmental risks is grossly unequal in the US and globally,” said Heymann, a physician and public policy expert who serves as director of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s WORLD Policy Analysis Center. “This study raises profound concerns about one more way that elevated exposure to air pollutants likely has serious consequences for the health of all people in the US and fuels health inequalities experienced by communities of color and low-income communities. There is an urgent need to lower the long-term exposure to fine particulate matter for those with the greatest exposure in the U.S. and to create a healthy environment across all locations where adults live and work and children learn and play.”

Fine particulate matter, defined as inhalable pollutant-derived particles with a diameter equal to or less than 2.5 micrometers, has been linked to heart and lung diseases, including asthma. The risks are severe, despite the tiny size of the particles, authors said.

“How small is 2.5 micrometers? Think about a single hair from your head,” said Clairy Fang, a doctoral candidate with the FSPH department of epidemiology and a co-author. “The average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter – 30 times larger than the largest fine particle.”

Some 3,096 counties across the United States were included in the study; as of 12 September 2020, the average COVID-19 incidence in the U.S. was 2.6%, with a median of 1.27%. Counties with COVID-19 incidence greater than the national median had higher average fine particulate matter concentrations, earlier occurrences of the first case, more tests performed, and were less likely to reopen.

“The health problems, in turn, appear to be connected with increased susceptibility to COVID-19 via chronic respiratory inflammation, which predisposes individuals to the disease; increased vulnerabilities to any viral infection, including COVID,” said Dr. Jianyu Rao, FSPH professor of epidemiology and pathology. “Air pollution could lead to the over-expression of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is the receptor SARS-CoV-2 binds to, thus increasing susceptibility to infection.”

Higher population densities, higher proportions of African American and Hispanic residents, a larger percentage of people living in poverty, higher populations with less than a high school education, and fewer owner-occupied properties were found in the counties with increased incidences of COVID-19.

“This is the first study to examine how the association between long-term exposure to fine particulate matter and COVID-19 incidence may be affected by state prevention policies, including facemask mandates and stay home policies,” said Dr. Yifang Zhu, FSPH professor of environmental health sciences and senior associate dean for academic programs. “Importantly, this study suggests a very real mitigation effect of stay home and face mask policies; facemask mandates, in fact, showed stronger protective effects toward the later course of the pandemic – exactly where we are today.”

The study is subject to some limitations, the authors said, including that both exposure and COVID-19 incidence are measured at county/state level, not at individual level. Overall, however, these findings show that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter is a risk factor, and that the levels of exposure to in the U.S. are sufficiently high to increase the risk of COVID-19.

“Although 43% of the US population has been vaccinated and many of the states have been reopened and planned to reopen, individuals who have not yet vaccinated or not fully vaccinated will be at a high risk of infection by emerging COVID-19 variants,” said Dr. Lina Mu, with the SUNY Buffalo and a co-author. “These individuals should still practice face covering and social distancing to protect themselves from infection before they are fully vaccinated.”

Funding: This research was funded by National Cancer Institute grant number NIH/NCI T32 CA009142.

Data availability statement: All data analyzed are publicly accessible, and the sources are listed here:

Citation: Fang, Fang; Mu, Lina; Zhu, Yifang; Rao, Jianyu; Heymann, Jody; Zhang, Zuo-Feng. 2021. “Long-Term Exposure to PM2.5, Facemask Mandates, Stay Home Orders and COVID-19 Incidence in the United States” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 18, no. 12: 6274.

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, founded in 1961, is dedicated to enhancing the public’s health by conducting innovative research, training future leaders and health professionals from diverse backgrounds, translating research into policy and practice, and serving our local communities and the communities of the nation and the world. The school has 631 students from 26 nations engaged in carrying out the vision of building healthy futures in greater Los Angeles, California, the nation and the world.

Originally published June 16, 2021 by UCLA Fielding School of Public Health at .

Image by Chris Zúniga

Rapid measurement of aerosol volatility using a deep learning-based portable microscope

Exposure to particulate matter (PM) has been associated with various adverse health effects. A large fraction of these particles consists of volatile or semi-volatile materials, such as emissions generated from cooking, automobiles and tobacco products. The dynamics of the evaporation process of such volatile particles has been an active area of research since the 19th century. However, existing measurement methods are either low throughput or unable to provide direct volatility measurement of particulate matter.

A team of UCLA engineers and environmental health scientists created a new method that can directly measure the volatility of particulate matter using a portable microscope that is powered by deep learning. UCLA team’s volatile particle measurement system is based on a cost-effective and mobile air quality monitoring device that records holographic images of aerosols that are captured on a transparent sticky sampling pad. These acquired holograms are then rapidly reconstructed using a deep neural network to dynamically image the evaporation process of aerosols and measure their volatility constants.

In their recent manuscript published in ACS Sensors, a journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers applied this volatility measurement system to characterize aerosols that are generated by electronic cigarettes (e-cigs). E-cigs have gained worldwide attention, primarily due to their unprecedented popularity over the last decade among never-smoking adolescents and young adults. The use of an e-cig generates an inhalable aerosol by heating and vaporizing a special liquid (also known as e-liquid), which typically uses propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin as the solvents to dilute nicotine and flavoring compounds. The UCLA team revealed a negative correlation between e-cig generated particle volatility and vegetable glycerin concentration in the e-liquid. Furthermore, the addition of other chemicals, such as nicotine and flavoring compounds, reduced the overall volatility of e-cig generated aerosols.

“The presented device can help us better examine the dynamic behavior of e-cig aerosols in a high-throughput manner, potentially providing important information for e-cig exposure assessment via, for example, second-hand vaping. This new method can also be broadly applied to rapidly characterize other types of volatile particulate matter” said Dr. Aydogan Ozcan, the Chancellor’s Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UCLA and an associate director of the California NanoSystems Institute, who is the senior corresponding author of the work.

This research was led by Dr. Ozcan, in collaboration with Dr. Yifang Zhu, a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences (EHS) at UCLA. The other authors of this work are graduate students Yi Luo, Yichen Wu, Liqiao Li, Yuening Guo and Ege Çetintaş. Dr. Ozcan also has UCLA faculty appointments in bioengineering and surgery, and is an HHMI professor.

Link to paper:

Article by Maxim Batalin. Image by Ozcan labs. Originally published June 10, 2021 at

Indoor air purifier

As schools spend millions on air purifiers, experts warn of overblown claims and harm to children

Last summer, Global Plasma Solutions wanted to test whether the company’s air-purifying devices could kill COVID-19 virus particles but could find only a lab using a chamber the size of a shoebox for its trials. In the company-funded study, the virus was blasted with 27,000 ions per cubic centimeter.

In September, the company’s founder incidentally mentioned that the devices being offered for sale actually deliver a lot less ion power — 13 times less — into a full-sized room.

The company nonetheless used the shoebox results — over 99% viral reduction — in marketing its device heavily to schools as something that could combat COVID in classrooms far, far larger than a shoebox.

School officials desperate to calm worried parents bought these devices and others with a flood of federal funds, installing them in more than 2,000 schools across 44 states, a KHN investigation found. They use the same technology — ionization, plasma and dry hydrogen peroxide — that the Lancet COVID-19 Commission recently deemed “often unproven” and potential sources of pollution themselves.

In the frenzy, schools are buying technology that academic air-quality experts warn can lull them into a false sense of security or even potentially harm kids. And schools often overlook the fact that their trusted contractors — typically engineering, HVAC or consulting firms — stand to earn big money from the deals, KHN found.

Academic experts are encouraging schools to pump in more fresh air and use tried-and-true filters, like HEPA, to capture the virus. Yet every ion- or hydroxyl-blasting air purifier sale strengthens a firm’s next pitch: The device is doing a great job in the neighboring town.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people buy these technologies, the more they get legitimacy,” said Jeffrey Siegel, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s really the complete wild west out there.”

Marwa Zaatari, a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers’ (ASHRAE) Epidemic Task Force, first compiled a list of schools and districts using such devices.

Schools have been “bombarded with persistent salespersons peddling the latest air and cleaning technologies, including those with minimal evidence to-date supporting safety and efficacy” according to a report released Thursday by the Center for Green Schools and ASHRAE.

Zaatari said she was particularly concerned that officials in New Jersey are buying thousands of devices made by another company that says they emit ozone, which can exacerbate asthma and harm developing lungs, according to decades of research.

“We’re going to live in a world where the air quality in schools is worse after the pandemic, after all of this money,” Zaatari said. “It’s really sickening.”

The sales race is fueled by roughly $193 billion in federal funds allocated to schools for teacher pay and safety upgrades — a giant fund that can be used to buy air cleaners. And Democrats are pushing for $100 billion more that could also be spent on air cleaners.

WATCH: What impact is ‘the COVID slide’ having on students?

In April, Global Plasma Solutions said further tests show its devices inactivate COVID in the air and on surfaces in larger chambers. The company studies still use about twice the level of ions than its leaders have publicly said the devices can deliver, KHN found.

There is virtually no federal oversight or enforcement of safe air-cleaning technology. Only California bans air cleaners that emit a certain amount of ozone.

U.S. Rep. Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chair of the education and labor committee, said the federal government typically is not involved in local decisions of what products to buy, although he hopes for more federal guidance.

In the meantime, “these school systems are dealing with contractors providing all kinds of services,” he said, “so you just have to trust them to get the best expert advice on what to do.”

These go-between contractors — and the air cleaner companies themselves — have a stake in the sales. While their names might appear in school board records, their role in selling the device or commission from the deal is seldom made public, KHN found.

A LinkedIn job ad with the logo for one air purifier company, ActivePure Technology, which employs former Trump adviser Dr. Deborah Birx as its chief medical and science adviser, recruited salespeople this way: “Make Tons of Money with this COVID-killing Technology!!” The commission, the post said, is up to $900 per device.

“We have reps [who] made over 6-figures in 1 month selling to 1 school district,” the ad says. “This could be the biggest opportunity you have seen!”

‘A tiny bit of ozone’

Schools in New Jersey have a particularly easy time buying air cleaners called Odorox: A state education agency lists them on their group-purchasing commodity list, with a large unit selling for more than $5,100. Originally used in home restoration and mold remediation, the devices have become popular in New Jersey schools as the company says its products can inactivate COVID.

In Newark, administrators welcomed students back to class last month with more than 3,200 Odorox units, purchased with $7.5 million in federal funds, said Steven Morlino, executive director of Facilities Management for Newark Public Schools.

“I think parents feel pretty comfortable that their children are going to a safe environment,” he said. “And so did the staff.”

Environmental health and air-quality experts, though, are alarmed by the district’s plan.

The Pyure company’s Odorox devices are on California air-quality regulators’ list of “potentially hazardous ozone generators sold as air purifiers” and cannot be sold in the state.

The company’s own research shows that its Boss XL3 device pumps out as much as 77 parts per billion of ozone, a level that exceeds limits set by California lawmakers for the sale of indoor air cleaners and the EPA standard for ground-level ozone — a limit set to protect children from the well-documented harm of ozone to developing lungs.

That level exceeds the industry’s self-imposed limit by more than 10 times and is “unacceptable,” according to William Bahnfleth, an architectural engineering professor at Penn State who studies indoor air quality and leads the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force.

Jean-Francois “JF” Huc, CEO of the Pyure company, pointed out that the company’s study was done in a space smaller than they would recommend for such a powerful Odorox device. He cautioned that it was done that way to prove that home-restoration workers could be in the room with the device without violating work-safety rules.

“We provide very stringent operating guidelines around the size of room that our different devices should be put in,” he said. But school staffers are often not warned about the problems they could face if a too-powerful device is used in a too-small room, he acknowledged.

You can’t see or smell ozone, but lungs treat it like a “foreign invader,” said Michael Jerrett, who has studied its health effects as director of the UCLA Center for Occupational and Environmental Health.

Lung cells mount an immune-like response, which can trigger asthma complications and divert energy from normal lung function, he said. Chronic exposure has been linked to more emergency room visits and can even cause premature death. Once harmed, Jerrett said, children’s lungs may not regain full function.

“Ozone is a very serious public health problem,” Jerrett said.

By Lauren Weber and Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News. First published by PBS News Hour on May 3, 2021.
Read  the full article at
Featured image by Aaron Yoo

workers maintaining a gas line

Natural gas leak that disrupted Downey and caused evacuations will extend overnight

Downey residents affected by a natural gas leak Thursday should expect evacuations to continue overnight, officials said.

The leak prompted a small evacuation but a wide warning alert after a contractor cut a gas main in a residential area, authorities said.

Downey’s fire and police departments arrived at Stewart and Gray Road and Rives Avenue at 10:32 a.m., said Tracy Gonzales, the Fire Department’s supervisor of communications. Southern California Gas responded shortly after and have worked with first responders to stop the flow of gas from the severed 6-inch main line.

At 3 p.m., SoCalGas estimated it would take four hours to cap the leak, said Juddy Montenegro, Downey’s public information officer. At about 8:30 p.m., the fire officials said repairs would take another eight hours.

Police have secured the area and road closures are in place on Stewart and Gray Road from Paramount Boulevard to Rives Avenue.

A 300-foot evacuation zone was set up around the leak. Montenegro said about 40 households were affected by the evacuation orders.

No injuries have been reported, but the department is providing shelter for those evacuated to shield them from the light rain, Gonzales said. Residents in the area may smell a natural gas odor while crews work, SoCalGas said in a statement.

As of 1 p.m., Los Angeles County’s large vaccination site in Downey was still open and unaffected by the leak.

An emergency alert was issued about 12:35 p.m., notifying L.A. County residents to avoid the area. Montenegro said the city was “testing a new system” but the alert was only intended for residents near the area.

“Unfortunately, it went out to more people,” she said.

Michael Jerrett, a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health, said that the short duration of the evacuation order and the size of the evacuation zone signaled that there wouldn’t be a high concentration of air toxins that could endanger returning residents. But he did advise that residents open windows to increase the air flow in their homes.

“I wouldn’t be concerned about going back to my own house if it was the same circumstances,” he said.

Read the full article at:…

By Priscella Vega and Sammy Roth originally published April 22, 2021

Picture by Baltimore Sun

caution sign that reads "Pesticide spraying in progress: proceed at own risk" in front of blooming plants

Childhood Brain Tumors Linked to Mother’s Exposure to Pesticides

Research published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Research suggests that exposure during pregnancy to a wide variety of pesticides may lead to the development of central nervous system tumors during childhood.

And the increased risk of these tumors – estimated as much as twice to 2.5 times higher for some pesticides – occurs even if the mother is not a farmworker, but lived as much as 2.5 miles (4000 meters) away from the field where the pesticides are sprayed, researchers found.

“Exposure to certain pesticides, simply through residential proximity to agricultural applications during pregnancy, may increase the risk of childhood central nervous system tumors,” said Dr. Beate Ritz, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health (FSPH) professor of epidemiology and of environmental health sciences, one of the co-authors. “Policy interventions to reduce pesticide exposure in individuals residing near agricultural fields should be considered to protect the health of children.”

The research – “Residential Proximity to Pesticide Application as a Risk Factor for Childhood Central Nervous System Tumors” – is being published in an upcoming edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environment Research, and is available on-line. Pesticides have been investigated as possible risk factors for childhood cancer since the 1970s, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified more than 100 as possible or probable carcinogens, based on toxicological and epidemiological data.

“Many pesticides are neurotoxicants, and have even been found in cord blood, indicating placental transfer of these toxins to the developing fetus,” said co-author Shiraya Thompson, an epidemiology MS candidate at FSPH. “This, in turn, suggests prenatal pesticide exposure may increase childhood brain cancer risk.”

This latest work, however, is the first study to track exposure and estimate risks of 77 separate and specific pesticides, said co-author Dr. Julia Heck, associate dean for research at the University of North Texas College of Health and Public Service and an associate professor of epidemiology at FSPH.

“This study is the first, to our knowledge, to estimate effects for a large number of specific pesticides in relation to CNS tumor subtypes,” Heck said. “Our results suggest that exposure to specific pesticides may best explain the results of previous studies that reported relationships between broader pesticide types and central nervous system tumors.”

The research team, from UCLA, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and the University of Southern California, all in Los Angeles, and the University of North Texas, analyzed cases of childhood central nervous system tumors in California between 1998 and 2013, with a focus on those living near agricultural fields.

“California’s agricultural work force numbers more than 800,000, according to state estimates,” said Dr. Christina Lombardi, a co-author and epidemiologist with the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “In addition to the negative health effects of pesticides on workers there are large numbers of pregnant women and young children living adjacent to treated fields who may experience detrimental health effects as well.”

Their findings include that three types of cancers – medulloblastoma, ependymoma, and astrocytoma – are associated with specific pesticides, and the pesticides inuron, thiophanate-methyl, and triforine are possibly carcinogenic, among others. Because pesticides are often applied to fields and orchards from the air, the study makes clear that while California’s agricultural workforce are the most at risk, any expectant mother who lives in a community adjacent to agricultural land is as well, said co-author Dr. Myles Cockburn, with the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

“This transition from farmland to residential neighborhoods is abrupt across California, and, of course, constantly changing as farmland is developed,” Cockburn said. “The simplest way to mitigate these risks are by reductions in exposure to pesticides, through restrictions as aerial spraying and air blast that lead to increased drift, and by farming methods that decrease reliance on pesticides.”

Methods: Cancer cases in children ages 0 to 5 years were drawn from California Cancer Registry records for 1988-2013 and matched to their birth certificates using name, date of birth, and social security number when available. The team achieved 89% matching success; most of the remaining 11% were likely born out of state. Researchers also excluded birth addresses outside of California; exposure information was not available for these locations, since most states do not require pesticide use reporting. The team limited analyses to the time period when full residential addresses were available on the electronic dataset of birth certificates (1998-2011).

Because of the focus on rural areas, the present study was restricted to those mothers living during pregnancy within 2.5 miles (4000 meters) of an agricultural field to which at least one pesticide was applied. The final study population consisted of 387 cases of all astrocytoma (combined), 119 cases of diffuse astrocytoma, 256 cases of pilocytic astrocytoma, 123 cases of ependymoma, 157 cases of medulloblastoma, and 123,158 controls. Possible carcinogens were selected per the U.S. EPA’s classifications, and prenatal exposure was assessed according to pesticides reported by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation’s Pesticide Use Reporting system.

Table Caption and Credit: Demographic characteristics of children in California born in 1998-2011 exposed to at least one pesticide during pregnancy. Credit: Lombardi et al.

Funding: This study was supported by grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (R21ES019986, R21ES018960). Ms. Thompson was supported by the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation Pediatric Oncology Student Training grant.

Citation: Lombardi, C., Thompson, S., Ritz, B., Cockburn, M., Heck, J.E., Residential Proximity to Pesticide Application as a Risk Factor for Childhood Central Nervous System Tumors

Environmental Research

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, founded in 1961, is dedicated to enhancing the public’s health by conducting innovative research, training future leaders and health professionals from diverse backgrounds, translating research into policy and practice, and serving our local communities and the communities of the nation and the world. The school has 631 students from 26 nations engaged in carrying out the vision of building healthy futures in greater Los Angeles, California, the nation and the world.

Read the original article at:…

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