“Before the 2008 Olympics, the pollution in China became an issue,” said Flagg, who completed his bachelor of arts degree in three years, majoring in biology and earning minors in Chinese and chemistry. “Athletes were concerned that it would harm performances or maybe cause permanent damage.”
To clear the air, the central government limited manufacturing and building and reduced traffic during the months before and the weeks of the games. But business as usual quickly resumed and the pollution returned, if not increased, in the years following.
While photographs and air-quality measurements document the presence of air pollution, little is known about how particulates spewed by industry, power plants and diesel engines affect the population.
“Is a little smog OK?” Flagg said. “We don’t really know.”
Flagg, 20, of Mayfield, will use a variety of methods to determine the dose-response relationship of certain kinds of particulates with respiratory damage—that is, how much of a certain kind of particulate can be tolerated before the body is harmed. His work, which begins in September, also will help identify early indicators of damage due to particulate exposure.
“There has been slow progress on emission standards for automobiles and air standards as a whole in China,” Flagg said. “The consensus there seems to be that economic development, with a focus on manufacturing and increasing car ownership, is more important than air standards.”
Flagg will be based in Wuhan, an industrial city in central China. His laboratory supervisor at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University, Peng Yao, is from Wuhan and suggested the city may be a good location for his project. Flagg, who calls himself a “gel jockey,” works on cellular biology at the lab. He also volunteers at a free clinic in Lakewood.
In China, he’ll work in the laboratory of Weihong Chen, professor in the School of Public Health, Tongji Medical College, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, adjacent to the city.
From there, Flagg will travel in and around the city to study people living in varying levels of air quality, which is usually poor in Wuhan, he said.
“In parts of the city, people wear masks outside, and when they take them off at the end of the day, they are covered in black soot,” he said.
Flagg will seek to correlate the air quality with residents’ respiratory and cardiovascular health. To do that, he will examine a number of cellular markers, including those related to inflammation, those that modulate immune responses and more. He’ll search for signs of how the particulates of different sizes and composition affect the markers. He also will look at biomarkers for respiratory output and capacity and search for links tying those markers to particulate exposure.
In preparation for the research, Flagg has been talking with others who are familiar with China and the central region, reading through published reports and academic articles on air quality and health and studying the various biomarkers. He has been working on his conversational Chinese and expanding his vocabulary, focusing on learning the technical terms he’ll need to communicate at Huazhong University’s school of public health.
Flagg also has been applying to medical schools so he can begin training to become a physician when he returns.
He is one of several Case Western Reserve students to receive a Fulbright scholarship this year. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and supported by cooperating foreign governments around the world.