"We believe these findings, which demonstrate a direct correlation between air quality and ear infections, have both medical and political significance," said study co-author Dr. Nina Shapiro, director of pediatric otolaryngology at Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA and an associate professor of surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Dr. Neil Bhattacharyya of Brigham and Women's Hospital was co-author of the study.
The doctors suggest that stricter air quality requirements in the Clean Air Act of 1990 are now yielding benefits. That law gave the U.S. EPA greater authority to mandate clean air regulations and appears now to have led to fewer ear infections.
Infections of the ear are one of the most common illnesses among children, with annual direct and indirect costs of $3 billion to $5 billion in the United States, the researchers point out.
Ear infections are among the most common childhood illnesses. (Photo by Nico)
"The results validate the benefits of the revised Clean Air Act of 1990, which gave the Environmental Protection Agency more authority to implement and enforce regulations reducing air-pollutant emissions," said Dr. Shapiro. "It also shows that the improvements may have direct benefit on health quality measures."
The research appears in the February issue of the journal "Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery," the official peer-reviewed publication of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. It was first presented in San Diego at the academy's 2009 annual meeting in October.
The researchers reviewed National Health Interview Survey data for 120,060 children between the years of 1997 and 2006 and measured the number of instances of three disease conditions for each year - frequent ear infections, defined as three or more within a year; respiratory allergies; and seizure activity, which is not influenced by air quality but was included as a control condition.
These numbers were then cross-referenced with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's air quality data on pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrous dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, for the same time period.
The study authors discovered that as air quality improved, the number of cases of frequent ear infections significantly decreased.
The results also showed that there was not an association between improved air quality and improved rates of pediatric respiratory allergy, possibly due to the fact that allergens are not pollutants, the doctors said.
The authors have no funding or financial ties to disclose on this study. Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA is a component of Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, ranked the best hospital in the western United States for 19 consecutive years and third among the nation's hospitals by "U.S. News & World Report."
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