Public Release: 

UC Davis wins $8 million EPA grant to study health effects of air pollution

University of California - Davis

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today awarded the University of California, Davis, an $8 million grant to study how air pollution harms human health by triggering premature deaths, sending more sick people to the hospital and damaging children's lungs. The research will focus on the San Joaquin Valley -- a region notorious for three of the nation's five metro areas with the most polluted air and one of the highest childhood asthma rates.

UC Davis will be home to one of five new air pollution research centers that will share a combined $40 million over the next five years.

"We are pleased to team up with one of the premier learning institutions on the West Coast to better address one of California's most pressing environmental health issues," said Deborah Jordan, the EPA's air division director for the Pacific Southwest Region. "With this grant UC Davis will further the EPA's understanding of particulate matter exposure and its health effects on adults and children."

The campus's new San Joaquin Valley Aerosol Health Effects Center will be directed by Anthony Wexler, a professor and expert in analyzing the chemical and physical characteristics of airborne particles.

"UC Davis is uniquely positioned to study the relationship between particulate matter and health problems," said Wexler, who is also director of the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center. "We have exceptional expertise in analyzing the size and composition of air pollution particles, and have many longstanding research programs on their health effects."

In addition, Wexler noted, UC Davis has top-tier programs in human and veterinary medicine, environmental sciences and engineering.

Benefits on national scale

Indeed, the new center will combine the talents of many UC Davis toxicologists, physiologists, engineers, chemists, atmospheric scientists and physicians. Their findings will help policymakers at the national and state levels regulate emissions of the most hazardous components of airborne particles. Their work will also contribute to air pollution reduction efforts in the San Joaquin Valley.

"UC Davis has a long history of applying novel technological and scientific approaches to understanding and solving air-pollution problems. This large, long-term grant from the EPA will let us build upon that work to the benefit of both Californians and other Americans," said Barry Klein, vice chancellor for research at UC Davis.

UC Davis' representative in Congress, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Napa Valley), said, "Gaining a better understanding of just how airborne pollutants affect our health will enable scientists, physicians and policymakers to find new ways to protect the public from their harmful effects. The news that UC Davis was selected as one of the nation's five new air pollution research centers is further evidence of its strength as an internationally recognized research institution."

Airborne particles include a wide range of pollutants -- road dust, diesel soot, fly ash, wood smoke, nitrates and sulfates. These particles are a mixture of visible and microscopic solid particles and minute liquid droplets known as aerosols. These particles come in a wide range of sizes, many so small that their diameter is less than 1/60th the width of a single human hair -- which allows them to easily enter the lungs and potentially cause serious health problems.

In fact, a growing number of studies at UC Davis and elsewhere have shown that when these particles are inhaled they can cause or worsen respiratory diseases such as asthma. They also can travel from the lungs through the bloodstream to the heart, where they can cause or worsen heart disease. Some studies suggest that particles may be especially harmful to children, whose lungs are still growing.

The co-director of the new center is Kent Pinkerton, a UC Davis professor of anatomy, physiology and cell biology in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Pinkerton investigates the interaction of gases and airborne particles in the lungs, and the effects of air pollution on lung structure and function. Pinkerton also is director of the UC Davis Center for Health and the Environment.

"With the establishment of this center, our efforts of the past two decades to understand how Central Valley air quality affects health have come full circle," said Pinkerton. "The environmental conditions in the valley are unique. At UC Davis, we have the expertise to study these conditions to a degree you could not find anywhere else in the country."

Key features of research program

The aerosol center's research will include:

  • Collecting air samples from the San Joaquin Valley and making them available to researchers at UC Davis and nationwide for further study.
  • Producing air pollutants in the laboratory that are representative of those found in the environment.
  • Exposing cell cultures, tissue cultures and animals to San Joaquin Valley air pollutants or similar, laboratory-produced air pollutants and measuring their health effects.
  • Understanding how particles affect lung development during childhood.
  • Discovering how the genes of cells in the lungs and heart respond when they come in contact with particles, and whether those responses are caused by the particles' size, shape or chemical makeup.
  • Mapping how particles move from the lungs to other organs.


The University of California is one of the world's foremost research and teaching institutions, and UC Davis is the University of California's flagship campus for environmental studies. UC Davis is a global leader in environmental studies relating to air and water pollution; water and land use; agricultural practices; endangered species management; invasive plants and animals; climate change; resource economics; information technology; and human society and culture. One in six of UC Davis' 1,500 faculty members specializes in an environment-related subject.

Media contact(s): Anthony Wexler, Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, (530) 754-6558,
Kent Pinkerton, Center for Health and the Environment, (530) 752-8334,
Lisa Fasano, U.S. EPA Region IX, San Francisco, (415) 947-4307, (cell phone: (415) 760-5421)
Sylvia Wright, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-7704,, (cell phone: (530) 219-8849)

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