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Silicone wristbands can indicate air pollution levels: US study
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Silicone wristbands can indicate air pollution levels: US study

A New York-based study aimed at identifying various factors responsible for a person’s air pollution exposure using data derived from personal wristband monitors

An innovative invention to measure individual exposure to air pollution comes in the form of personal silicone wristband monitors.

Air pollution has risen to become one of the biggest environmental health risks across the globe. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), outdoor air pollution is estimated to have caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2019. An innovative invention to measure individual exposure to air pollution comes in the form of personal silicone wristband monitors. These can absorb harmful compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the air and provide insights into individuals’ exposure to harmful air pollutants.

PAHs are a group of organic air pollutant compounds resulting from the burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, and tobacco. They are widespread environmental pollutants associated with conditions like allergic asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and even cardiovascular issues.

A study published in Nature Journal aimed at identifying personal characteristics and behaviors associated with a person’s PAH exposure was conducted by environmental epidemiologists at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Oregon State University, Pacific Northwest National Labs and Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. It focuses on identifying the sources of exposure to PAHs, which was hitherto not looked into extensively. The study states that comprehensive identification and characterization of a person’s exposure to air pollution is a critical step toward identifying individuals at risk of high exposure levels and developing targeted interventions based on the sources of exposure.

“This study represents a significant advancement in our understanding of personal PAH exposure”, says Julie Herbstman, director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health and senior author of the study. “By uncovering the variables that play a crucial role in exposure levels, we are better equipped to develop interventions aimed at reducing health risks,” says Herbstman in a press release.

Study conducted on pregnant individuals

Exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can cause adverse birth outcomes like fetal growth retardation, low birth weight and preterm births, making pregnant women a vulnerable population,” says Dr Soumya Das, consultant pulmonologist, Manipal Hospital Salt Lake, Kolkata. Prenatal exposure to air pollution can make a child more prone to developing allergic rhinitis, asthma, and other airway disorders. 

The study, which was conducted on 177 people in their third trimester of pregnancy, who were based in New York, highlights that exposure to PAHs can be damaging during this phase. During the study, silicone wristband monitors were deployed to gauge people’s PAH exposure. The participants shared details about their demographics, employment and lifestyle such as smoking, choice of cooking fuel and traffic exposure in a questionnaire, following which they wore the personal wristband monitors for 48 hours. A second questionnaire completed after the monitoring period involved questions about their potential exposure sources while wearing the wristbands.

How do wristbands monitor air pollution?

According to an article published by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, silicone mimics the process of absorption of chemicals into our body. Hence, organic chemicals from the surroundings — air, water, and even one’s skin — get absorbed into it. These can be extracted and analyzed in the lab to determine which chemicals a person was exposed to, and in what quantity.

Individual factors affect air pollution exposure

“Several variables, such as their socioeconomic status, mode of commute, area of residence and even occupation, can influence a person’s exposure to air pollution,” shares Dr Harish Chafle, senior consultant intensivist, chest physician, bronchoscopist and sleep disorder specialist, Global Hospitals, Mumbai.

In the New York-based study, researchers examined 61 PAH compounds and compared them to 75 questionnaire variables. The study found country of birth, income, maternal age, transportation type, time spent outdoors and seasons as the variables most frequently predictive of PAH exposure. It also underscores the utility of silicone wristbands to monitor air pollution and the associated health outcomes. Sarah McLarnan, MPH, a PhD candidate at Columbia Mailman and the study’s first author, was quoted saying that researchers were able to combine insights from the questionnaire and data from the wristband deployment to ‘refine measurements of exposure sources in terms of time and space, enabling more accurate source characterization’.

“The study is a step in the right direction to measure individual exposure to PAH and carry out necessary interventions to prevent the adverse effects of air pollution on personal health,” says Dr Chafle. He adds that conducting the study on pregnant women can help potentially control the health risks that air pollution poses to the health of the mother and the fetus.

Dr Das shares that while the study can help improve awareness about the different variables contributing to a person’s air pollution exposure, more actionable measures are required to reduce ambient air pollution.

Takeaways

The New York study aimed to identify different variables associated with an individual’s exposure to air pollution by deploying personal silicon wristband monitors on pregnant women. The study found income, country of birth, time spent outdoors, maternal age, transportation type, and season as the variables most frequently predictive of PAH exposure. The right insights can help identify high-risk individuals and develop targeted interventions.

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