by Lu Tian
The World Health Organization’s recent designation of air pollution as the leading environmental cause of cancer has brought attention to the detrimental effects environmental conditions can have on human health. For students at the University of Southern California, residing in Los Angeles comes hand in hand with exposure to large amounts of these harmful air pollutants. “I would say its definitely a concern because USC is sitting right between the I-10 and I-110 freeways, and you students are exposed to a lot of pollutants because of that,” said Dr. Lisa Collins, a professor in the Environmental Sciences department at USC.
The exact composition of air pollution varies from day to day and amongst different locations. However, the main constituents of air pollution are greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, atmospheric aerosols, and persistent organic pollutants. The most harmful of these are the atmospheric aerosols and ozone, both of which are known to increase the risk of death in humans.
Although the long-term effects of air pollution have not yet been determined in respect to USC students, Collins does believe that a relationship exists between air pollution levels and the overall health of the student body. She acknowledges that, “some students will spend a semester at Catalina and they’ll come back and realize that their skin has cleared up because they weren’t in all the pollution.” However, the overall lack of a defined relationship has led to much speculation on the effects that spending four years in Los Angeles actually has on students.
Ed Avol, a professor at the Keck School of Medicine, sees air pollution as just one of a multitude of environmental problems that can detrimentally affect the lives of students in Los Angeles. “I don’t know if we can say that exposure here is going to be any different from exposure received at other campuses,” says Avol. However, he does acknowledge that the large amount of motor vehicles in Los Angeles and the pollutants they produce are detrimental to the health of USC students.
Both Collins and Avol agree that there are many ways that one can combat the effects of these air pollutants. “There are lots of things you can do about air pollution,” says Avol, “You can make personal choices about the cars you use, when you play, whether you encourage the kinds of policy choices that lead to higher or lower pollution, all of these things affect air quality on smaller and larger scales and obviously can affect your health.”
However, both agree that one of the best ways of lessening the effects of harmful air pollutants is by being aware of the relative levels of pollutants during daily activities. “Running along Figueroa at rush hour may not be the best idea, but choices about where and when you exercise can affect your exposure,” says Avol. It is at these times that traffic levels, and subsequently the level of pollutants in the air, are at their highest. “You’re better off getting up at 6 when the air is much cleaner and has less pollutants to run than at rush hour,” agreed Collins.
Even though the true effects of air pollution on the student body are not yet known, no reasons exist at this time to view it as a substantial health problem at USC. In fact, “Air quality in Los Angeles has drastically improved over the last few decades,” says Avol, even though this may not seem like the case. Until a definite relationship between the effects of air pollution and the health of students is determined, there is no pressing need for lifestyle changes amongst the USC student population.