UC Berkeley study finds association between asthma, ozone exposure

Propeller Health/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley researchers participated in a recent study that found there is an association between ozone — an air pollutant that forms when pollution from cars, power plants and refineries react to sunlight — exposure and increased severity of asthma symptoms.

The research showed short-term exposure to ozone at concentrations lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality standard was associated with an increase in inhaler use, according to Meredith Barrett, co-author of the study and head of population health research at Propeller Health. The study also found that the impact of ozone exposure varied by age, as children used their inhalers more often than adults.

“Even at levels of ozone that are not astronomical, there was an effect on people’s inhaler use,” said John Balmes, co-author and campus environmental health sciences professor.

According to Balmes, their research started as co-author Josh Pepper’s thesis project for the UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program. He added that apart from himself, Pepper collaborated with Barrett and others at Propeller Health, CommonSpirit Health, UC Berkeley and UCSF.

Researchers tracked asthma inhaler use in Sacramento and Woodland due to “unusually” high levels of asthma-related emergency visits in these areas, according to a press release. Balmes added that these areas were studied because they experience relatively high levels of ozone during the summer.

Using a GPS-enabled monitor to track asthma inhaler use, researchers compared the data with local air quality stations. According to Barrett, this is the first study to use objective real-time data from digital inhalers to analyze the impact of ozone on human health.

“There is a growing body of research on the negative health effects of breathing ozone, but we haven’t yet been able to study its impact on asthma symptoms in close to real time,” Barrett said in an email. “The effects of air pollution are expected to worsen with anticipated climate change, so it’s even more important to research these impacts.”

Previous asthma research relied on patient self-reporting, which according to Balmes is burdensome and sometimes incomplete. He added that self-reporting also assigns the information to a residential address, which becomes a problem for researchers who would be unable to get a complete picture of where asthma patients were using their inhalers.

According to Balmes, this type of research could ultimately lead to more public information about air quality on a regular basis. Barrett added this would help asthmatics plan their day and adapt to problematic air conditions.

“As climate change and environmental exposures increase, the potential effect on health needs to be addressed,” Barrett said in an email. “Research like this may provide government agencies with the important information that they need to make decisions about changes in community standards.”

Contact Maria Young at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.