Working with a team from the Czech Academy of Sciences and the University of Cincinnati, University at Albany School of Public Health researcher Dr. Hyunok Choi recently identified the risk of childhood asthma among lean, overweight, and obese children in relation to air pollution in the Czech Republic, finding that Benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) exposure was associated with significantly elevated odds of asthma among overweight and obese adolescents, particularly girls. This study appeared in the December 2018 Environment International.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are by-products of incomplete combustion of organic matter that can be released from forest fires, volcanoes, and human activities such as barbecuing, frying, driving automobiles, or burning incense. Once PAHs are airborne, they can be ingested or inhaled by humans. One particular PAH, Benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P), is of particular concern as it is a known carcinogen that may cause irritation of the respiratory tract, skin irritation, and gastrointestinal irritation. The full impact of B[a]P on human health is unknown, although previous studies have indicated that males and females may face different adverse health outcomes due to PAHs.
The Czech Republic’s industrial city of Ostrava has one of the highest observed concentrations of ambient PAH in Europe, making it an ideal city for studying the effects of these compounds. The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute has implemented a one-of-a-kind PAH monitoring program that conducts routine nationwide monitoring of airborne PAHs, sampling the air from various regions multiple times per month. Data collected by the institute includes the mean daily levels of PAH from Ostrava (an industrial city) and semi-rural towns in Southern Bohemia (a region located south-west from Ostrava) – these measurements were used to calculate children’s exposure to B[a]P based on where they live.
Approximately 200 children with asthma and 200 children without asthma were chosen from the most polluted districts of Ostrava as well as semi-rural towns in Southern Bohemia. The researchers conducted a medical review for each child and matched one asthmatic child to a healthy child based on geographic location, age, and gender.
The study found that the ambient B[a]P was highest near the homes of overweight and obese children who had asthma and high near the homes of lean children who had asthma, in comparison to the lean children. Overweight and obese adolescent girls were associated with one of the strongest adjusted odds ratio of asthma. The same adolescent girls were also associated with a higher likelihood of eczema and wheezing preceding their current asthma diagnosis, compared to the lean girls. The overweight and obese boys were associated with higher odds of asthma as well, but not to the same extent as their female counterparts.
This study demonstrates for the first time that PAHs pose a significant risk on obesity-associated asthma, for which adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. Since asthma and obesity represent the most burdensome public health threat facing children today, the authors are further investigating how B[a]P may be tied to these threats and ways its adverse health impact can be reduced.