May 28, 2015

Gender disparity is not only a matter of wages and family roles. Pulmonary disease can affect women differently, and with a greater degree of severity, than men.

Scientists like Dr. Kent Pinkerton, a Core Scientist in the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC) Respiratory Diseases Unit and for the Inhalation Exposure Core at UC Davis, are utilizing nonhuman primate research to examine gender-based differences in lung health and disease and the effects of climate change on lung health. Since the nonhuman primate lung has been shown to have similar architectural, morphological and developmental patterns to that of humans, it is the perfect model of lung development and aging processes.

Dr. Pinkerton and his colleagues thoroughly reviewed sociocultural implications of pulmonary disease attributable to numerous causes, including biomass burning and infectious diseases among women in low-to middle-income countries, as well as disparities in respiratory health among sexual minority women in high-income countries. The scientific team sought answers to many questions – 10, to be exact – addressing gender-based disparities in lung health as it relates to telomere length, stages of life, hormones, cumulative effects, and environmental toxins.

For example, women in low- to middle-income countries must combat with household air pollution (HAP) or indoor air pollution from the indoor burning of solid fuels. With limited access to fuels, households often use wood, charcoal, animal waste, coal or crop residue for cooking using either open fires or traditional unvented stoves. These cooking fires release soot into the household air and blacken the interior walls, resulting in air that exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) air quality standards by 10 to 100 fold.

HAP exposure is linked to  four million deaths worldwide each year, predominantly from COPD, cardiovascular disease, acute pneumonia in children under age five and lung cancer. Bearing responsibility for cooking and childcare, women especially suffer from HAP exposure-related diseases.

Thankfully, cleaner cooking solutions, like highly efficient cookstoves or effective, well-maintained chimneys, can reduce household exposures and improve the health of women and kids worldwide. However, with a need to reach hundreds of millions of households and to find the best solutions and mechanisms to implement such strategies, the problem is daunting.

Utilizing the CNPRC’s extensive capabilities and resources, and a myriad of research projects under way, Dr. Pinkerton is well positioned to understand the mechanisms underlying respiratory diseases and to develop new strategies to alleviate the detrimental health outcomes of pollutant exposures.

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