Air pollution can make your children fat.
That was just one of the more surprising findings of a decade-long public health study by Frederica Perera, an environmental health researcher at Columbia University and one of five winners of this year’s Heinz Awards.
Dr. Perera’s research tracked the pre- and post-natal health of 720 mother-child pairs in New York City.
She found that in addition to causing infant mortality, low birth weight, allergies, asthma, slower brain development and respiratory illnesses, there is also a correlation between exposure to air pollutants and childhood obesity.
“Exposure to endocrine disruptors in the air can alter the normal hormonal signalling and affect growth and development, so there is a tendency for some children to become more obese,” said Dr. Perera who reviewed the findings of that study, first reported in 2013, at one of four public presentations by Heinz Award winners on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
Dr. Perera, who founded and is the director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, said Pittsburgh’s air quality remains a serious public health problem for regional residents, and noted that the region is the sixth worst nationally for airborne particle pollution.
“We are concerned about pre-natal exposures because they can cause greater absorption and retention of toxics in the developing child,” she said. “Because such children have immature biological defenses against exposures, chronic diseases that affect someone later in life can be seeded.”
She was joined at the Wednesday event by Philip Johnson, Heinz Endowments director for science and environment, who said the region’s industrial and mobile sources, along with residential woodburning, are producing some of the most polluted air in the nation.
And Deborah Gentile, an allergist and immunologist at Allegheny General Hospital and director of research in the Allegheny Health Network’s Division of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology, said a soon-to-be-released study will show that a quarter to one-third of students in several area school districts have asthma and air pollution can trigger attacks.
Other recipients of the 20th annual Heinz Awards are Aaron Wolf in the public policy category for his work in water resource allocation; illustrator and cartoonist Roz Chast in arts and humanities; William McNulty and Jacob Wood in the Human Condition category for founding Team Rubicon, a program to engage military veterans in global disaster relief efforts; and Sangeeta Bhatia, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who was recognized in the Technology, Economy and Employment category for her tissue engineering, including the first cultivation of liver cells outside the human body.
The awards are given annually by the Heinz Family Foundation to honor the memory of Sen. John Heinz, who died in a plane-helicopter collision in eastern Pennsylvania in 1991. Each award includes a $250,000 prize.
Don Hopey: email@example.com, 412-263-1983 or on Twitter @donhopey