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Linking Air Pollution and Health

Do air pollution and climate change affect us even before we are born? That is what Health Canada scientist Dr. Eric Lavigne is trying to find out. His research looks at how human health is affected by the air around us, including pollution, outdoor temperatures, climate change and allergens.

In support of Government of Canada actions on air quality, Eric is researching the impact of air pollution on health, such as the mortality risk or the chances of suffering from asthma due to specific atmospheric conditions at various times in our lives.

“In one project, we are looking at the impact of exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and after birth,” says Eric. “We want to know if exposure to air pollution could be linked to health problems later in life or at birth.” This information will be valuable in informing Government of Canada policies and regulation.

Eric and his team are discovering that exposure to air pollution by pregnant women does have an impact on children at birth. In fact, the greater the exposure to air pollution during pregnancy, the higher the risk of babies having a low birth weight or being born prematurely. “We have noticed that young children under the age of 5 are at greater risk of developing asthma if their mother was exposed to elevated levels of air pollution during pregnancy or if they were exposed when they were young.”

The researchers looked at administrative data for births from 1990 to 2012, and correlated them to satellite data of air pollution to create models of pollution for specific times and places. With this data, Eric examined the fine and ultrafine particles found in air and linked to the development of asthma in children. “We noticed that the risk to the child is especially increased when a woman is exposed during the second trimester of her pregnancy.”

Eric and his team are now examining the impact of environmental factors on pregnancy and childhood. The Canadian Environment Pregnancy Infant and Child (CANEPIC) study will look at pollution, but also at green space, city noise, and the built environment such as pathways and pedestrian access. “To what extent do these factors have an impact on health?” wonders Eric. “Health Canada researchers want to find out if there are specific elements, such as specific types of trees or green spaces, that can reduce the negative impacts of air pollution.”

The team will start to get results in the coming months and will keep gathering information until 2022 to complete different analyses in order to better understand the health impacts of pollution.

It’s hot out there!

In addition to looking at the impact of air pollution on health, Eric is also examining the possible link between extreme heat and mortality. He is making projections and future models based on different greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Eric is looking at various scenarios, including a high concentration scenario where the increase in greenhouse gas continues over the next decades, or others where sometimes drastic changes are made to reduce emissions.

The team’s projections are based on scenarios in order to predict future temperature until 2100. “We can then evaluate the impact of temperature on mortality and hospitalizations around the world based on the possibility of an increase in heat waves,” explains Eric.

The international Multi-city Multi-country Research collaboration collects data from around the world. “In a context where greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, findings indicate that we will experience more heat waves with an even greater potential for deaths than today, especially among the at-risk population which includes people suffering from chronic diseases, older adults and immunosuppressed people,” says Eric. Health Canada’s continued involvement in the project will advance global understanding of the influence of climate change on air quality health impacts, and the co-benefits of reducing air pollution in a changing climate.

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