Pollution Exposure is Higher in City Kids Who Are Active, Finds Study

Increased exposure to pollutants may offset health benefits of regular exercise

October 26, 2016

NEW YORK, NY (Oct. 26, 2016)—Children from urban areas of New York City who engaged in vigorous daily exercise had greater exposure to black carbon, a traffic-related pollutant, than children who were less active, according to a study by a multidisciplinary team of researchers from Columbia University's College of Physicians & Surgeons and Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health.

The researchers also found that while physically active children had reduced airway inflammation compared to less active children, this association was offset by having high black carbon exposure.

Findings from the study were published online in the journal Environmental Research.

Black carbon, a pollutant that is also an indicator of diesel exhaust exposure, is known to have an adverse impact on health. However, little research has examined whether children living in urban areas receive a higher dose of the pollutant when they engage in regular physical activity.

“There are numerous health benefits associated with regular physical activity, particularly for children,” says Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and lead author of the study. “We wanted to determine if regular exercise increases the risk of exposure to air pollution in city children and if that exposure has an impact on the lungs.”

The researchers studied 129 children (age 9 to 14 years) from the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health longitudinal birth cohort, which is composed of children of African American and Dominican heritage living in the Bronx and Northern Manhattan.

The participants wore wrist motion detectors to measure their physical activity over a period of six days. Nearly 60 percent of the children were considered active, engaging in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous activity per day, per recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those who obtained less exercise were characterized as nonactive.

Personal exposure to black carbon was monitored during two 24-hour periods, at the beginning and the end of the physical activity assessment, with a wearable vest containing a miniature black carbon-detection device. Following each 24-hour black carbon collection period, the researchers measured each child’s level of fractional exhaled nitric oxide, a marker of airway inflammation. They also measured each child’s specific sensitivity to indoor and outdoor allergens.

The study revealed that the active children were exposed to 25 percent greater concentration of black carbon compared with nonactive children. Daily physical activity was associated with reduced airway inflammation, but that effect primarily occurred among the children who were exposed to lower concentrations of black carbon. Exercise had no effect on airway inflammation among children exposed to the highest concentrations of black carbon.

“This study’s findings clearly add to evidence that physical activity may benefit the respiratory health of children, but exposure to high levels of black carbon may lessen this effect,” said Rachel Miller, MD, professor of medicine (in pediatrics) and environmental health sciences. “Future studies should be aimed at understanding the precise levels of pollutant exposure during periods of high activity so that we might better understand which children are at the highest risk for lung disease.”

Read the full study online.



The study is titled, “Physical Activity, Black Carbon Exposure, and Airway Inflammation in an Urban Adolescent Cohort.” Authors were Stephanie Lovinsky-Desir (Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY), Kyung Hwa Jung (CUIMC), Andrew G. Rundle (Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health), Lori A. Hoepner (Mailman), Joshua B. Bautista (CUIMC), Frederica P. Perera (Mailman), Steven N. Chillrud (Columbia University), Matthew S. Perzanowski (Mailman), and Rachel L. Miller (CUIMC and Mailman).

The study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (3R01ES013163, 2R01ES13163,5P01ES09600/EPA RD-83214101, P30ES009089, and KL2TR00008) and the Stony Wold-Herbert Fund.

None of the authors report any conflicts of interest.

Columbia University Irving Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, preclinical, and clinical research; medical and health sciences education; and patient care. The medical center trains future leaders and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, public health professionals, dentists, and nurses at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Mailman School of Public Health, the College of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. Columbia University Irving Medical Center is home to the largest medical research enterprise in New York City and State and one of the largest faculty medical practices in the Northeast. Columbia University Irving Medical Center shares a campus with its hospital partner, NewYork-Presbyterian. For more information, visit cuimc.columbia.edu or columbiadoctors.org.

Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health 
Founded in 1922, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health pursues an agenda of research, education, and service to address the critical and complex public health issues affecting New Yorkers, the nation and the world. The Mailman School is the third largest recipient of NIH grants among schools of public health. Its over 450 multi-disciplinary faculty members work in more than 100 countries around the world, addressing such issues as preventing infectious and chronic diseases, environmental health, maternal and child health, health policy, climate change & health, and public health preparedness. It is a leader in public health education with over 1,300 graduate students from more than 40 nations pursuing a variety of master’s and doctoral degree programs. The Mailman School is also home to numerous world-renowned research centers including ICAP (formerly the International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs) and the Center for Infection and Immunity. For more information, please visit www.mailman.columbia.edu.