Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Amy Padula, PhD, MSc
Amy Padula, PhD, has devoted much of her work to looking at how the air we breathe can impact health.
“Most of my work has been focused on air pollution exposures during pregnancy and how it affects the baby,” Dr. Padula says.
Air pollution affects everyone, but she has a unique and interesting reason why her work has focused on women who are pregnant and their children.
“We look at pregnancy because it is the special time when there is a lot developing and a lot happening. As humans, we are very vulnerable during this period of development and, in a way, during pregnancy, babies can be considered canaries in a coal mine because they develop so fast that if there are adverse changes to their development, we are able to see them more quickly than, for example, increases in mortality over 60, 70, or 80 years,” Dr. Padula explains.
When looking at pregnant women and developing babies, she is specifically trying to determine if there are toxins in the air that may be contributing to unfavorable birth outcomes, like preterm birth or neural tube defects.
“We have found associations between several air pollutants, in some cases all of the air pollutants that we measure - carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and both the fine particulate matter less than 2.5 microns and also the slightly larger PM10 - and preterm birth, which is being born before 37 weeks gestation… Often the babies that are born earlier have more problems. They are more likely to not survive the newborn period, and even when they do survive, they are more likely to have problems with their breathing or problem’s developmentally later in childhood... Another one of the outcomes that we found that was associated with air pollution is neural tube defects. This is a birth defect that occurs very early in development, in the first two months of when a woman is pregnant, and it happens when there is an incomplete closure of the neural tube, which then develops into the spine and brain of the baby. Spina bifida is one of the defects that we had looked at, as well as Anencephaly. We did find associations between carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide and these neural tube defects,” Dr. Padula says.
Not only has her work found associations between air pollution and negative health outcomes, but she has also been able to narrow down a specific time window that seems to be most important for exposure to air pollution and a baby having these outcomes.
“For the work in preterm birth, we did find that the second trimester was important. We found a stronger association between air pollution and preterm birth for the very early preterm birth, so the births less than 27 weeks or less than 32 weeks… When we looked at air pollution backwards from the time they were born it was the air pollution in the month or two just before they were born that was most critical period for the early preterm birth,” Dr. Padula shares.
One other factor that Dr. Padula considers in her work is location. Much of her work has analyzed air pollution in the Central and San Joaquin Valley in California, an area known for it’s high rates of pollution.
“We find really high levels through this sort of corridor of where the I5 goes through the San Joaquin Valley and also where the 99 goes through Fresno. I think there is a lot of transportation of goods, so a lot of diesel trucks. It’s not just everyone in their car, although that also contributes… In addition to the traffic sources even just the geography of the valley and how the air pollution sits in between the mountain ranges, and it gets trapped by weather changes including winter inversions and that also contributes to the higher exposures,” Dr. Padula says.
While this is specific to California, other areas with similar geography would also be vulnerable. In addition to the geography altering exposures and outcomes, she spoke to us about how demographic and socioeconomic factors play a role.
“We’ve found evidence of this idea of double jeopardy, where when people are exposed to high amounts of air pollution and they have low socioeconomic status that there is an even stronger effect than you would expect from just one or the other if you were just adding them up,” Dr. Padula adds.
Knowing all of these factors that come together to negatively impact pregnancy and birthing situations, the implications for her work are very important.
“I think of our work as being more informative for policy to encourage the EPA to lower their standard for what is considered safe levels of air pollution because over the past 40 years, as science has accumulated, and we have found associations at lower and lower levels, the EPA, has lowered the standards of what is acceptable. So I generally think of our air pollution work as really informing that,” Dr. Padula says of the potential impact of her work.
She hopes that these policy changes will happen, and she thinks if they do, it will help shape the future for a large audience.
“I think it would be great if everyone was as well informed about environmental health as so many other things in our lives… I think people would be able to improve their individual health and the health of their family, but also on a larger level I think that people would be more informed about how political decisions surrounding environmental protection can affect people on a larger level than I think they are currently aware of. [I want to work on] informing people so they can be activists about their own health and about the environment because I think that overall the public … and maybe even as scientists we are not aware of the degree to which the environment affects our health,” Dr. Padula says.
“In environmental health we have the ability to change and improve our environment. It’s something we have power over, and if we are able to change it and improve people’s health it seems like a logical step to take.”
We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.
In March, we held our seventh webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.