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Media Release

Study to determine long-term effects of air pollution on health

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Dr Matthew Hobbs portrait

A new study into the cumulative effects of air pollution on New Zealanders’ physical and mental health will kick off next month in Christchurch using data from one of New Zealand’s longest-running longitudinal studies.

The University of Canterbury’s Dr Matthew Hobbs (pictured) has received an Emerging Researcher First Grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to examine exposure to air pollution in New Zealand from conception through to 40 years of age.
Dr Hobbs and his team will work with data from participants of the HRC-funded and internationally renowned Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS) based at the University of Otago. The CHDS birth cohort has followed the health, education, and life progress of a group of 1,265 children born in Christchurch in mid-1977 for the past 45 years.

Air pollution is a major cause of death and non-communicable diseases such as asthma and respiratory disease. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths a year1

Dr Hobbs says the long-term and cumulative effects of air pollution on both physical and mental health and wellbeing are less well established. 

“Over the course of a person’s lifetime, their environment will have a considerable influence on their health and socioeconomic outcomes. However, research into the effects of environmental exposures on health has rarely involved monitoring a population since birth,” says Dr Hobbs.

“We are extremely lucky to be able to work with data from the CHDS. This will allow us to control for confounding variables from birth such as early childhood experiences or history of mental health disorders, which are data that are often missing from prior evidence. This is a key point of difference in our study, and it should enable us to provide much more rigorous evidence for the long-term impacts of air pollution on our health.”

The study will integrate air pollution exposure data at four points in time – conception, early childhood, early adulthood, and mid-adulthood – and could also potentially identify critical periods of exposure to air pollution. For example, cumulative exposure to air pollution in childhood when the child is still developing might be more important when it comes to future health outcomes than exposure during adulthood. 

“We know that people are often more exposed to environmental risk factors if they live in certain neighbourhoods such as socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods,” says Dr Hobbs.

“One of the key things we would like to know, and which our study will be able to tell us, is whether inequitable exposure to air pollution in childhood has long-lasting impacts. If it does, then this provides compelling evidence to modify our environments to stop these ongoing and historical injustices.” 

Dr Hobbs says unlike places in Europe and the US, New Zealand does not have a good repository of standardised geospatial data for the environment. “This study will be one of the first times in New Zealand that we have tried to go back in time to get historical measures of air pollution. This is challenging because all the air pollution data we have from the 70s and 80s is for smoke pollution; we did not have the modern measurements that we have now, such as measurements of particulate matter.”

Despite these challenges, Dr Hobbs says they should be able to get an accurate picture of cumulative exposure to air pollution as they can combine this early data with measures of lead levels in teeth at age 9 from the CHDS to help confirm any exposure.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Sunny Collings says the 11 Emerging Researcher First Grants announced today for a combined value of $2.7 million are an important way to support promising up-and-coming researchers looking to develop a health research career in New Zealand.

“It is great to see someone with an impressive health geography background like Dr Hobbs receive this grant to lead a significant public health research programme,” she says.

“The intersection between environment and health in determining health outcomes is an area of critical importance, and this funding will enable Dr Hobbs to work with a diverse group of researchers from different fields to advance our knowledge of the cumulative impacts of air pollution.”

See below for the full list of 2022 Emerging Researcher First Grants. To read lay summaries about any of these research projects, head to our Research Repository and filter by proposal type ‘Emerging Researcher First Grants’ and year ‘2022’.

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2022 Emerging Researcher First Grant recipients

Dr Claire Badenhorst, Massey University 
Menstrual cycle status and iron deficiency diagnosis in healthy females 
36 months, $249,999

Dr Amy Chan, the University of Auckland 
A data-driven approach to predicting asthma attacks in Aotearoa 
36 months, $249,984

Dr Jacqueline Hannam, the University of Auckland 
Modelling procalcitonin for bacterial infections in the intensive care 
36 months, $249,999

Dr Kerry Hilligan, Malaghan Institute of Medical Research 
Improving population health through education of the innate immune system 
36 months, $250,000

Dr Matthew Hobbs, University of Canterbury 
Cumulative impacts of air pollution exposure on adult physical and mental health 
24 months, $249,956

Dr Odunayo Mugisho, the University of Auckland 
Exploring the role of the inflammasome pathway in diabetic retinopathy 
36 months, $249,660

Dr Silke Neumann, University of Otago 
Treating gastric cancer according to its biology 
36 months, $249,960

Dr Olivia Ogilvie, University of Canterbury 
Investigating the diet-microbiome connection in paediatric coeliac disease 
36 months, $229,098

Dr Sharon Pattison, University of Otago 
Investigating fibroblast influence on the gastric cancer microenvironment 
36 months, $249,942

Dr Sachin Thakur, the University of Auckland 
Development of an ultrasound responsive implant to treat spinal cord injury 
36 months, $249,453

Dr Shinya Uekusa, University of Canterbury 
Older informal caregiver experiences following the COVID-19 pandemic in Aotearoa 
18 months, $233,907