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Duke researcher to study air pollution effects on early childhood obesity

Air pollution has been linked to a plethora of health complications, but could it also be a factor in worldwide obesity

Junfeng “Jim” Zhang—professor of global and environmental health—was recently awarded a $2 million grant to study the effects of pre- and postnatal exposure to air pollution on birthweight and early childhood growth, two critical predictors of obesity in childhood. This funding was awarded from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

The study will last four years and follow 20,000 infants and their families in Shanghai, monitoring the children’s exposure to air pollution, their health measures and vitals during the first two years of their lives. Zhang will work alongside colleagues in both the United States and China.

The research team hypothesizes that preconception, prenatal and postnatal exposure to air pollution could make children more susceptible to obesity later in life, Zhang said.

If the team’s findings support the correlation between air pollution and obesity, it could help them “understand the critical time window” within pre-conception, gestation and early life in which the pollution could “program a person to be susceptible to obesity,” according to Zhang.

He noted that increasing childhood obesity is a very prevalent problem, not just in the United States, but also in China, India and the rest of the world. Although we often focus on major risk factors, such as physical activity and calorie intake, Zhang emphasized the importance of looking into other “unconventional risk factors” of obesity. 

He also emphasized that air pollution in Shanghai is not that high and is comparable to a place like Los Angeles.

Zhang explained that any couple in Shanghai that plans to have a child is provided with free educational consultations with medical professionals. Those couples fill out a detailed questionnaire about their lifestyle, including their drinking, eating and smoking habits. 

The study will then collect data on height, weight and general health from a series of six scheduled “well baby” appointments over the first two years of life. The study will also map exposure to air pollution both for mothers prenatally and children in early life. 

They will then use advanced models to perform epidemiological analysis in order to “link all these things together to see if early life exposure will be related to later life obesity,” Zhang said.

Zhang was inspired to perform this study after his previous research demonstrated a correlation between rodent weight and air pollution exposure. That study examined two groups of rodents in a controlled chamber—one was exposed to city air, and one group had filtered air. The rodents with polluted air gained more weight than the rodents with clean air. 

He said that the results prompted him to look at the pathophysiology. He found that the rodents with polluted air had “higher levels of tissue inflammation” and “lower levels of fat metabolism.” 

This work made him curious as to whether we could “translate what we observed in the study to humans,” Zhang said. 

In order to reduce exposure to air pollution, Zhang said that it is important to advocate for clean air policies, particularly in vulnerable areas. On an individual level, something like an air purifier could help, as well as general awareness of air quality. 

He noted that this research could allow us to advise people on the importance of good air quality, just as pregnant women are advised to eat healthily and avoid alcohol or drugs.  

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