Goal: Alert Houston children with asthma about air danger

Rice University air pollution study will localize risks for HISD students 

Rice University researchers, with support from Houston Endowment, will develop a system to warn schoolchildren who have asthma about changing air quality up to three days in advance of increased airborne risks.

Rice statistician Katherine Ensor, Rice environmental scientist Loren Raun and Houston Public Health Authority David Persse will build upon their previous analysis of air quality and health in Houston in a two-year study to determine where in the city and at what times of day asthmatics are most likely to be at risk. The city’s Bureau of Pollution Control and Prevention is also a partner in this research.

The city of Houston and Houston Independent School District (HISD) are partnering with Rice and have pledged to use the results of the study to better manage and deploy their asthma-related resources.

Children with asthma in Houston's public schools should get an early warning about bad air days if a study by Rice statisticians and the city is successful. Photos.com

The new work will follow a groundbreaking 2013 study led by Ensor, Raun and Persse that found an association between out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and levels of air pollution, including ozone, in Houston. That study prompted more lifesaving CPR training in neighborhoods found to be most at risk.

The $730,000 Houston Endowment grant will support the effort led by Ensor to show where levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide, which can trigger asthma attacks, are highest in proximity to HISD schools.

HISD estimates 5,000 of its students have asthma. The ability to warn officials and parents up to several days in advance of high pollution levels will allow them to adjust children’s schedules to minimize risk; it also will heighten awareness among the city’s EMS responders who are often called to schools to respond to asthma attacks.

Raun said studies have determined a mixture of ozone and nitrogen dioxide in the air can trigger asthma attacks. She and Ensor found in their 2013 study that cumulative exposure to high levels of ozone over two days is a significant risk factor in asthma attacks.

Ensor said Houston predicts ozone levels through monitors dotted around the city, but not nitrogen dioxide, which had not been considered a problem in the city because overall levels are well below National Ambient Air Quality Standards. The new study will use a mobile lab to monitor neighborhoods and roads around schools to find where and when ozone and nitrogen dioxide levels are likely to peak.

We expect this study to not only improve the management of childhood asthma in Houston, but also to improve lives.                     — Katherine Ensor

The researchers will integrate data on HISD students and existing and new data on nitrogen dioxide concentrations near schools and roadways by deploying the Houston mobile laboratory to fill geographic gaps in the current set.

“This will give us a far better understanding of the association between asthma attacks in HISD students and air pollution,” Ensor said. “We expect this study to not only improve the management of childhood asthma in Houston, but also to improve lives. This will provide HISD with quantitative information to help them target prevention.”

“This may motivate schools to modify individual behavior plans, sports schedules, bus idling policies or carpool lanes,” said Gwendolyn Johnson, manager of HISD Health and Human Services.

“While the study will focus on children, it would also improve information and services for adults with asthma and heart conditions through community education and better alert protocols and allocation of emergency medical services,” Persse said.

Even though the study is centered on Houston, Ensor said the methods she and Raun develop should apply to any urban center where air pollution affects residents’ health. “We intend to develop predictive tools that can be deployed by health departments and others, including those who design mobile applications for asthma sufferers,” she said.

Ensor is a professor of statistics and Raun is a faculty fellow of statistics, environmental analysis and decision-making at Rice. Both are part of Rice’s cross-disciplinary professional science master’s program in environmental analysis and decision making.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.