Breathing for Two
The air we breathe can have a profound impact on our health, especially for expectant mothers. That’s why Natalie Johnson ’06, assistant professor in the School of Public Health, is studying pregnant women’s exposure to air contaminants in South Texas, where asthma rates are high.
With the help of pregnant women in McAllen, who wear backpack-style air sampling equipment for three separate 24-hour periods, Johnson is monitoring levels and types of air pollutant exposure.
“We’re especially interested in small particulate matter that can penetrate the lungs deeply and cause oxidative stress,” said Johnson. Oxidative stress can cause tissue damage and potentially harm fetal development. Direct exposure (when contaminants cross the placenta) and indirect damage through maternal oxidative stress have been linked with lower birth weights, premature births and an increased risk of developing asthma later in life.
In addition to her work in McAllen, Johnson is examining exposure to benzene, a risk factor for childhood leukemia, among women in Houston who delivered babies in the months following Hurricane Harvey. “Ultimately, I hope my research findings can influence policy or inform interventions for exposed populations,” she said. “If we can protect women and their babies, we can make a huge public health impact.”