ILL WIND: A young boy wears a mask against pollution in Linfen, China. Preliminary results from a study conducted in Tongliang, China, reveal that children exposed to highly polluted air while in the womb had more changes in their DNA--and a higher risk of developmental problems--than did those whose mothers breathed cleaner air during pregnancy.
Peter Parks AFP/Getty Images
A few heaping piles of scrap metal and a rusty coal shed are all that is left of the power plant that until recently squatted like an immense, smoke-belching dragon in the middle of Tongliang, a gray city of 100,000 in south-central China. As we walk toward the shed, a Belgian Shepherd begins barking furiously, jerking its iron chain and baring sharp teeth. A brown-eyed face peeks out from the open doorway--it belongs to a girl in a stained shirt, holding a tabby cat that jumps away to hide under a slab of concrete as we approach. The girl is no more than six or seven years old and appears to be living in the shed with her father, who watches us warily from within.
The delegation of local officials who are taking us on a tour of the site are embarrassed; they want to hustle us along to a nearby office to show us an elaborate scale model of an extravagant (by Tongliang standards) 900-unit housing development planned for the property. But Frederica Perera is intrigued. She strides toward the girl and gives a friendly "ni hao" and a smile. The girl smiles back before retreating back into the shadows with her father.
Children, after all, are why Perera is here. She is looking for connections between air pollution and disease, especially in children who were exposed to pollutants in the womb. The director of Columbia University's Center for Children's Environmental Health, Perera helped to pioneer the field of molecular epidemiology, which applies the tools of molecular analysis to identify genetic and environmental factors that contribute to disease. She and other molecular epidemiologists who focus on environmental links to illness increasingly do much of their work in the developing world, where pollution is so ubiquitous that its complex connections to health can be calibrated even in small study populations. But their conclusions should also apply in places such as the U.S., Europe and Japan, where environmental exposures are subtler and their effects more difficult to measure in small-scale studies.
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