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newsrel -- Study links wildfire smoke exposure to reduced immune system function

Posted: 07 Jan 2014 14:02:51
Please consider the following news release from the California
Air Resources Board:

January 7, 2014


Melanie Turner
(916) 322-2990

Study links wildfire smoke exposure to reduced immune system

10-day episode of wildfire smoke in 2008 offers unexpected
primate research opportunity

Sacramento — An ARB-funded study at the California National
Primate Research Center showed for the first time that exposure
to high levels of fine particle pollution at infancy adversely
influences development of the branch of the immune system that
combats infectious disease, and adversely affects the development
of lung function.

The study was the product of unusually high levels of fine
particle pollution in Northern California as the result of about
2,000 wildfires in June 2008. Over a period of 10 days levels of
PM2.5 (the terminology for inhalable particles smaller than 2.5
microns) at the UC Davis campus were recorded at 50 to 60
micrograms per cubic meter. Some readings reached as high as
nearly 80 micrograms per cubic meter, well over the federal
standard of 35 micrograms per cubic meter. 
The study was designed to investigate the effects of air
pollution on infants, taking advantage of a rare case of
scientific serendipity: as it happens, the high levels of
particle pollution coincided with the end of the season when
rhesus monkey babies are typically born at the federally funded
Primate Center. The rhesus macaque monkeys, including a
significant number of monkeys between 1 and 3 months old, live
full time in outdoor field cages at the facility, and were
exposed to the elevated levels of air pollution 24 hours a day as
a result of the fires. 

The following year, no days came close to exceeding the federal
standard, allowing investigators to compare lung function and
levels of immune system activation of the 2008 smoke-exposed
monkeys to those born in the same months in 2009 when there were
no wildfires.

All animals were studied when they were 3 years old (young
adulthood). No animals were harmed, and the research involved
only blood samples and lung function tests. 

The ARB-funded research project, “Persistent Immune Effects of
Wildfire PM Exposure During Childhood Development,” was led by
Dr. Lisa Miller, CNPRC respiratory diseases unit leader.
Significant findings include:
• Several parameters of immune system function that help protect
the body from bacterial infection were found to be reduced in the
animals exposed as infants to the wildfire PM2.5, compared to
animals born the following year.
• This is the first time fine particle pollution has been shown
to influence the branch of the immune system that combats
infectious disease.
• Unexpectedly, investigators found a link between reduced immune
system function and abnormalities in lung function, particularly
in female animals.

The results suggest that, as a result of the adverse impact on
the immune system, the exposed monkeys are more susceptible to
infectious disease. The results also suggest that infancy is a
period during which high PM2.5 exposures may adversely influence
development of the innate immune system, and adversely affect
development of lung function. Infancy may be associated with
increased vulnerability to high levels of air pollution exposure
because of the rapid lung and immune system development that
occurs during the early months of life. 

Researchers intend to continue their research on the two groups
of monkeys throughout their lives to see if the adverse immune
and lung function impacts persist.

While several studies suggest short-term exposure to wildfire
emissions (over a few days) can worsen symptoms of asthma and
other lung diseases, no studies to date have investigated whether
there are long-term health consequences to such exposures. 

Numerous scientific studies have previously linked exposure to
PM2.5, which can be deeply inhaled into the airways and lungs, to
a variety of problems, including premature death, especially in
people with pre-existing heart disease. PM is also found in

The California Air Resources Board has implemented a number of
emissions control regulations that have dramatically reduced
PM2.5 levels statewide. While the PM2.5 levels measured in summer
2008 are much higher than levels typically seen today, those
levels were common in the past, prior to the state implementing
emissions control regulations. 

For more information about the ARB-funded research project, go to

For more information about the CNPRC at UC Davis, go to
http://bit.ly/1a5yt34. To request access to high resolution
photos of rhesus macaque monkeys at the CNPRC, email
Web_CNPRC@primate.ucdavis.edu or call (530) 752-0447.

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