The National Institutes of Health has awarded a $1.04 million RO1 grant to Rodrigo X. Armijos, M.D., Sc.D., associate professor of public health sciences at The University of Texas at El Paso, to investigate the adverse effects of air pollution on the cardiovascular health of children.
Armijos and his UTEP team will conduct the study on elementary school-aged children in El Paso to see if transient exposure to high levels of air pollution causes oxidative stress and systemic inflammation. He will also examine whether systemic inflammation that results from long term exposure to air pollutants can lead to arterial stiffness and thickness, which are predictors of cardiovascular disease, especially atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
Armijos said that while other studies have looked at the effects of air pollution and cardiovascular health in adults, this is the first study to examine this problem in young children in the United States.
“Cardiovascular disease kills more people than all different type of cancers together and is the cause of other major health problems,” Armijos said. “It is worse in people who are already sick, such as persons with diabetes. If they are exposed to air pollution, that makes it even worse because it can aggravate or increase problems with cardiovascular disease.
“We need to take steps to prevent cardiovascular disease early in at-risk persons and groups. If we don’t, by the time children grow up and reach their 30s and 40s, they’re at risk of having a heart attack or stroke. They’re going to have a lot of health problems and at that point it’s already too late.”
According to Armijos, when people breathe in air pollutants, such as from vehicle exhaust, particles travel from the lungs to the arteries, resulting in inflammation. The problem can be further complicated if other pro-inflammatory factors are involved such as obesity, a high fat diet and a sedentary lifestyle. He believes that by incorporating anti-inflammatory factors, such as a diet rich in antioxidants, the effect of pollution on cardiovascular health can be potentially mitigated.
Armijos and his team conducted a similar NIH funded study from 2009-11 in Quito, Ecuador, where he looked at the cardiovascular health of children in neighborhoods with varying levels of air pollution. The study found that children living in heavily polluted neighborhoods had more systemic inflammation and early signs of atherosclerosis compared to children in less polluted neighborhoods.
“El Paso is the ideal place to conduct this type of study because we have a lot of people who are living in very highly polluted environments because they can’t afford to move to other cleaner areas in the city,” Armijos said.