Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Optimizing health: Institute targets well-being amidst pollution

It's a sunny day in Beijing. Pedestrians bustle about on the crowded avenues, inhaling the sweet perfume of a passer-by, the pungent aroma of fried delicacies… and a hefty serving of toxic particulates that linger in the city's thick air.

These particles, microscopic collections of metals, organic matter, and other substances, find their way to the lungs, where they slip into the bloodstream, disturb delicate hormonal feedback mechanisms, or trigger a powerful inflammatory response, ultimately increasing residents' risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke.

Gregory Wellenius, IBES Fellow and Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health, knows that these kinds of health risks do not arise from air particulates alone. Although environmental health scientists tend to study atmospheric variables such as particulate matter, ozone, and ambient temperature in isolation, Wellenius explains that, in reality, they all interact—and often in ways that are complex and poorly understood.

Smog in Beijing
Smoggy air: China's air pollution surrounds pedestrians on even the clearest of days. Photos: Gregory Wellenius

Ozone, for instance, is protective when stored high in the stratosphere, but its high reactivity makes it profoundly hazardous here on the ground. In densely populated areas, pollutants such as vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions combine with heat and light to create molecules of ozone. The hotter and sunnier the weather, the more of these compounds that are produced, and the greater the risk for poor air quality. Climate change will likely amplify these effects, leading to adverse health outcomes that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable demographics: the elderly, and those who already suffer from heart or lung conditions.

"We know that there are going to be more hot days, and that those hot days are going to be hotter and more humid," says Wellenius. "So what is the likely health impact of that in people?"

Kate Weinberger, a postdoctoral associate who began her term with the Institute in September, hopes to answer this question. Weinberger will work with Wellenius, IBES climate modelers, and neighboring state health authorities to forecast likely heat and health effects in New England through the end of the century. She will draw on temperature records, hospital data, and future climate models to build a robust picture of the ways that climate change may impact human health.

Weinberger's interdisciplinary project fits squarely within the Institute's human health and well-being research theme, which holds at its core the intimate, bi-directional relationships that exist between groups of people and their landscapes. Institute researchers like Wellenius and Weinberger cross disciplinary boundaries to study how various environmental stressors impact human health, how people adapt or fail to adapt to these stressors, and what kind of social and cultural changes come about as a result. Above all, the Institute seeks to support and empower at-risk populations in the face of these challenges, fostering the health and well-being of both people and their environment.

Smog on Great WallCollaborations among IBES fellows frequently touch upon each of these goals. For instance, in many low- and middle-income countries, families burn coal, wood, or crop residue to cook their food and heat their homes, a practice that is necessary for survival but also extremely harmful to residents' health. Although four million people across the globe engage in this practice, relatively few studies have been done to tease out its precise effects on the body. Wellenius and other researchers at the Institute plan to explore the practice of unvented biomass burning and its health effects in more detail, focusing mainly on the highly vulnerable populations among which it is most prevalent.

Reflecting on the teamwork that went into conceptualizing this and other projects, Wellenius recalls, "It was just really exciting to have such a multidisciplinary, diverse team working together to a common goal. That was really what struck me that IBES is supposed to be about. That was sort of the embodiment," he continues. "We were across different themes and across different disciplines and brought very different expertise to the table, and we were all working really well together."

Wellenius believes that part of the magic of the Institute lies in the fact that it is housed at a relatively small university.

"Larger institutions don't have the same need to collaborate across disciplinary lines the way we do," he explains. "We have top-notch people in each of the disciplines within IBES. By working together, we can really create new ideas and new advances in science that are not going to happen by people working within their own disciplines, how they traditionally do."

Wellenius believes that the Institute's collaborative strengths could also inform a more interdisciplinary educational experience for students. Already, several Institute undergraduates have benefitted from formal partnerships with faculty in the School of Public Health; moving forward, this relationship could easily extend in the opposite direction.

"There are some existing ties between education in environmental sciences on campus and public health down the hill," he says. "There are lots of concrete examples that I can think of right off the bat of classes that we should cross-list and pre-approve for people to take as part of their concentrations."

After all, says Wellenius, "there's no question that Brown's undergrad students are just some of the best in the country… They come with such enthusiasm and fresh ideas that I think we can really learn a lot from them."

Brown University is already renowned for its brilliant students, accomplished postdocs, and expert faculty; in Wellenius' view, the main advantage of the Institute is its ability to get these parties talking.

"I think that's where IBES can play a key role, by facilitating these connections," he explains. "The people already exist; now it's about facilitating the interplay among the great resources we already have."