John M. Peters dies at 75; USC epidemiologist


Dr. John M. Peters, a pioneering USC epidemiologist who played a crucial role in demonstrating the short- and long-term effects of air pollutants on the health of children, died of pancreatic cancer May 6 at his home in San Marino. He was 75.

Peters was the driving force in creating the Children’s Health Study, which has followed nearly 1,800 Southern California children since 1993 to determine how their health was affected by varying levels of air pollution.

Among other findings, the study showed that short-term exposure to pollutants increases asthma and absences from school, that children living and studying near freeways suffer the worst effects from air pollution and that long-term exposure stunts the growth of the lungs, leading to breathing impairments and other problems in adulthood.

This study “profoundly changed the public health community’s understanding of the harm caused by air pollution to growing lungs,” said Bonnie Holmes-Gen, senior director for policy and air quality of the American Lung Assn. in California. “As findings from the study rolled out over its 10-year period, there were many revelations that not only broke new scientific ground, but that also became a ‘wake-up call’ to the public and policymakers.”

In 1993, the study enrolled 1,759 10-year-olds in 12 communities, some with high pollution levels and others with low levels. Researchers monitored levels of nitrogen dioxide, acid vapor, ozone and particulates daily, and went to the schools and tested each child’s lungs annually.

Under Peters’ guidance, the team found that current levels of air pollution have chronic, adverse effects on lung growth, that air pollution promotes the development of asthma and exacerbates the existing disease, that children who participate in sports in heavily polluted communities have the greatest risk of developing asthma, that parents’ stress levels compound the effects of air pollution and that genetics play a role in response to the pollutants.

By the time they were 20, children who grew up in the most heavily polluted areas were five times as likely to have less than 80% of normal lung function, the study found. Low lung function is second only to smoking as a risk factor for death.

“When we began the study,” Peters said, “we had no idea we would find effects on the lung this serious.”

“The Children’s Health Study is the landmark study that we would all like to reproduce in our countries,” said Isabelle Romieu of the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico.

John Milton Peters was born April 24, 1935, in Brigham City, Utah. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah in 1957 and his medical degree in 1960. After a one-year surgical residency at Johns Hopkins University, he was drafted and spent two years as a captain in the Army at Ft. Belvoir, Va.

Although he had originally planned to become a surgeon, the Army sent him to care for military workers at the North and South poles and other remote locations, where he began to appreciate that workplaces themselves could create health risks. That led to a change in career course, and he received a master’s in public health from Harvard University in 1964 and a doctorate in 1966. For his doctoral thesis, he showed that the health effects of smoking on Harvard undergraduates could appear in just a few years.

While on the faculty at Harvard, his studies showed that allowable levels of airborne dust in the Vermont granite industry produced chronic lung damage, that firefighters who did not wear respiratory equipment suffered lung damage and that vinyl chloride exposure in the rubber industry produced a rare liver cancer.

In 1980, he moved to USC and founded the division of environmental health in the department of preventive medicine. He designed and implemented the Children’s Health Study and directed it for 10 years.

A member of his college golf team, he was a lifelong aficionado and was described as fiercely competitive, not only in golf but in everything. He was a master of crossword puzzles and an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox and the Celtics.

Peters’ first marriage, to Carolyn Widtsoe Durham, ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, the former Dr. Ruth Kloepfer; a sister, Jody King of New York; three sons, John of Iowa City, Iowa, Philip of Piedmont, Calif., and Charles of Orlando, Fla.; a daughter, Susa Brush of Salt Lake City; six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.