BYU professor pioneers research on air pollution’s negative health effects

Lexie Flickinger
Joshua Higbee, Arden Pope and Jacob Lefler meet regularly on the BYU campus. The team researches the effects of air pollution on the quality of human life. (Lexie Flickinger)

BYU economics professor Arden Pope said other people thought he was crazy when he started researching the effects of air pollution on quality of human life almost 30 years ago.

According to Pope, his work began to be acknowledged by scholars after years of research both in the United States and across the globe. Today, Pope’s research is widely accepted, and he works with multiple research assistants, like BYU economics students Josh Higbee and Jacob Lefler.

“In the late ’80s early ’90s, the findings were pretty clear that exposure to air pollution contributes to both disease and death. Nobody believed that back then. It just seemed absurd,” Pope said.

Pope acknowledged he wouldn’t have believed his findings on air pollution if he hadn’t extensively studied the negative effects of poor air quality. Most scientists did not take Pope seriously because he was an economist studying an environmental problem. They dismissed his credibility on the subject.

During 30 years of research, Pope said he and other researchers began showing people that air pollution is the fifth most important risk factor contributing to global burden of disease. Through years of experiments, Pope said he demonstrated how air pollution is one of the top 10 factors of respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Pope is now among the world’s most cited and recognized experts on the health effects of air pollution, being named among Clarivate Analystics’ 2018 list of Highly Cited Researchers.

Pope’s early research used data collected at Lindon Elementary School, where Pope described the pollution as black, sooty and unhealthy. While studying and teaching over 33 years ago, Pope used his economics expertise to delve into what Utah’s air pollution was doing to people’s health.

After leaving his teaching position at Texas A&M to teach economics at BYU 33 years ago, Pope continued his mostly unsupported research on the effects of air quality by conducting observational studies. According to Pope, an observational study consists of information taken from daily occurrences and inferences.

Pope’s first study on air pollution in 1989 was a natural experiment regarding the Geneva Steel Mill that operated in Vineyard, Utah, until 2002. Pope conducted the study because the old steel mill, which accounted for about 60 percent of the air pollution in the valley, was shut down for 13 months because of a labor dispute. The dispute was resolved and later reopened in 1987.

“We could compare the difference in air quality. The first study was going back and looking at pediatric respiratory hospital admissions across that time period to see if pollution played a role in people’s admittances,” Pope said. 

The relationship between air pollution and hospital admittance was astonishing, Pope said. However, the general population considered the relationship an odd finding.

Pope conducted studies looking at both child and adult respiratory and cardiovascular deaths to see if they were associated with day-to-day changes in air pollution — and they were.

Pope continued his research in 1992 by traveling to Boston to conduct a study at Harvard where large groups of individuals were followed through their lives to determine if air pollution was associated with their death.

Pope also conducted a study at BYU in 2015 where students’ blood was drawn periodically when air pollution levels dramatically changed. Pope’s findings were published in the American Heart Association’s Journal of Circulation Research.

“We looked at markers in the blood to see signs of inflammation and various side effects, like how sticky the blood is and how much it clots,” Pope said. “We basically looked at vascular damage due to air pollution.”

Pope clarified “various side effects” as various indicators of vascular damage or damage to blood vessels.

Pope said the idea of air pollution contributing to disease and death wasn’t widely accepted or recognized until the early 2000s. Pope’s findings became more prominent, attracting interest of BYU students, two of whom became Pope’s research assistants.

Former BYU pre-med student Jacob Lefler came across Pope’s article on the effects of air quality in 2016. At the time, Lefler said he had recently taken a liking to math and economics classes and was looking to change his major.

Lefler said he noticed Pope’s work was similar to the research he was doing in his biochemistry lab. He thought working with Pope could facilitate his transition to studying economics.

Since joining Pope, Lefler has worked on two research projects with classmate Joshua Higbee. Higbee studies economics and math at BYU and joined the team about one year ago.

In 2017, the team began by working with infant hospitalization data from Intermountain Healthcare.

Lefler said they looked at how old each infant was when he or she was hospitalized, where he or she was from, whether he or she had been exposed to pollution or not, what tests had been run and the results. The team wanted to compare infants who were exposed to pollution with those who were not.

“We mimicked a randomized control trial by looking at the day the person was hospitalized and compared it to the other days in that same month they weren’t hospitalized,” Lefler said. “That way we didn’t compare different people. Instead, we were comparing the same person to themselves.”

According to Higbee, the research conducted with the Intermountain Healthcare data spanned several months. Lefler said most of the research data referenced infants and toddlers under 2 years old who contracted respiratory syncytial virus.

Many children get respiratory syncytial virus before they turn 2, he said. Some infants and toddlers just have a bad cold, but others get so sick they have to go to the hospital.

Lefler said the research results showed pollution increased an infant’s or toddler’s probability of going to the hospital. If air pollution levels increase for a couple weeks, a baby is more likely to be hospitalized, Lefler said.

“Breathing in pollution makes infants more likely to go to the hospital once they get sick with RSV. Little babies can get RSV, but if they have also been exposed to pollution it weakens their immune system,” Lefler said.

In late 2017, the team also looked at pollution’s respiratory and cardiovascular effects using geographic variation and pollution level changes.

They traveled to Washington, D.C. to analyze data from the National Health Interview Survey over the summer of 2018.

Higbee said they worked with federal interview data from 1986 to 2014, which provided them with a representative sample of Americans. The team was only allowed to be in the room with the data for three days, so they arrived in D.C. with their testing systems prepared.

“We compared people who have almost identical demographics. The only difference being how much pollution they are exposed to, depending on where they live and how long they live,” Lefler said.

The findings were sent to a professional, scientific journal and can’t be disclosed until the team’s work has been published in late 2018 or early 2019.

“We can’t say too much about (the results) yet, but I will say that the findings were very interesting,” Pope said.

Pope said he thinks the evidence of his research indicates that exposure to air pollution contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Pope said students can make a difference in reducing air pollution by being supportive of public policy efforts to clean up the air, voting for efforts to control major industrial sources and supporting emissions programs to have clean cars.

Pope and his team said they believe air pollution problems will diminish. Pope said the future looks promising, and they hope their air pollution research will be unnecessary in the future.

“We are having a harder time researching because it was easier to find pollution effects years ago when we would have days where we had some of the worst air pollution I’ve seen,” Pope said. “Now our episodes are getting better.”

This story has been updated.

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