Letter from the Director

Photo: John R. Balmes, COEH DirectorJohn R. Balmes, COEH Director

I write this Director’s Letter with sadness for the loss of Pat Buffler. As the adjacent story amply documents, Pat was a true leader of occupational and environmental epidemiology. More than that, she was a wonderful person who often had a twinkle in her eye and delighted in furthering the careers of students and younger faculty. She was always warm and welcoming to me after I joined the faculty at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. She was a major supporter of the COEH because as former Director of the Southwest Occupational Health and Safety Educational Research Center, she understood the needs of our training programs. Pat always had a special fondness for our Labor Occupational Health Program. We miss her, but the legacy of her work will live on.

Most of you know of Pat’s ground-breaking research on environmental and genetic determinants of childhood leukemia risk, but I first became aware of Pat from a different contribution. While still at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston during the 1980s, Pat led one of the first panel studies of the impact of daily exposures to air pollution on the health of asthmatic individuals. What was particularly innovative about this study was the care that Pat and her colleagues took to monitor personal exposures of the participants because she knew that high-quality exposure assessment was necessary to detect the relatively small, but real air pollution “signal” in terms of adverse effect on asthma symptoms. The recognition that collaboration with exposure scientists was critical to the conduct of environmental epidemiologic studies was a lasting feature of Pat’s work.

With Pat’s contribution in mind, I would like to highlight several studies involving COEH investigators that have been published recently, which represent major contributions to our understanding of the adverse health effects of air pollution. Amy Padula and colleagues, including COEH faculty member, Kathie Hammond, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology (2013 May 15;177(10):1074-85) that in utero exposure to traffic-related air pollutants was associated with neural tube defects in newborn children from the San Joaquin Valley in California. The results of this study increased our understanding of the risk of birth defects due to air pollution.

Another COEH faculty member, Michael Jerrett, had a paper published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2013 Sep 1;188(5):593-9) that used individual exposure estimates to show fine particulate matter, ozone (O3) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were positively associated with ischemic heart disease mortality. Because NO2 is a good marker of traffic-related pollution, the strong associations found with this pollutant and all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer mortality suggest that exposure to traffic is a cause of premature death.

A third paper, on which I am a co-author, documented in a large multi-center study of Latino and African-American children that the risk of asthma was increased with exposure to NO2. The results reported in this paper, also published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine (2013 Aug 1;188(3):309-18), add to a growing body of evidence that traffic-related pollutants may be causally related to childhood asthma.

Finally, I would like to recognize a major achievement of COEH faculty member, Kent Pinkerton, from UC Davis. He co-edited a new book with Bill Rom of NYU entitled “Global Climate Change and Public Health” to which I had the pleasure of contributing a chapter on California’s cap-and-trade program (see story on page 8).

The three recent air pollution studies that I highlighted above and the new book on climate change demonstrate that COEH faculty are in the forefront of efforts to understand how combustion-sourced air pollution adversely affects both health and the climate. We also need to be in the forefront of finding effective ways to reduce these ill effects.

back to top