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Air Pollution Data Collected During Beijing Olympics Will Help Determine Effects on Cancer and Cardiopulmonary Diseases

By Lois Baker

Release Date: March 30, 2011

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Lina Mu has received a $1.3 million, three-year grant to study the short-term effects of particulate matter among Beijing residents.

BUFFALO, N.Y. Lina Mu, PhD, assistant professor of social and preventive medicine at the University at Buffalo and a native of China, has received a $1.3 million, three-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to study the short-term effects of particulate matter (PM) among Beijing residents.

China has high levels of air pollution, including fine particles in the air, known as particulate matter, which is known to increase the risk of illness and death from cardiopulmonary diseases and cancers.

The shutdown of most polluting factories and the restriction of automobile traffic in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics presented an opportunity to conduct a natural experiment on the changes in inflammation and oxidative damage among Beijing residents before, during, and after the games when pollution returned to normal.

Mu is a specialist in environmental epidemiology in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions, with a particular interest in cancer etiology (cause) related to environmental pollution.

"Particulate matter levels decreased by approximately 50 percent from baseline during the Olympics, according to data collected by our study team," says Mu. "When the temporarily closed factories restarted and the restricted vehicles came back on the road after the Games, we found that air pollutant levels gradually returned to pre-Olympic levels.

"This circumstance created a natural experiment with two opposite-direction interventions and offered a unique opportunity to study short-term biological response to both decreases and increases in ambient air pollution."

Taking advantage of this opportunity, Mu and colleagues enrolled 201 adult men and women prior to Beijing's air quality improvement initiative went into effect, and followed these individuals to study the short-term effects of exposure to particulate matter.

They collected serum, urine and sputum samples at three time points: baseline (before), during and after the Olympics, and banked the samples from each participant.

Using these samples, the researchers will determine if changes in PM exposure over the course of the Olympics relates to changes in oxidative damage to DNA, lipid and proteins, and antioxidant defense. They also will see if the particulate exposure is associated with varied levels of inflammatory proteins (cytokines and chemokines) secreted by cells, which would indicate changes in respiratory and systemic inflammatory responses.

"We predict that biomarker levels of oxidative damage and inflammation will decrease, while the levels of antioxidant enzymes and anti-inflammation will increase, in response to improvements in air quality during the Olympic period," says Mu.

"We hope the findings will improve the understanding of how air pollution may increase various short- and long-term health effects."

Additional researchers on the project are Matthew Bonner, Richard Browne, Kate Rittenhouse-Olson and Lili Tian from UB; Furong Deng from Peking University and James Zhang from University of Southern California.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.