The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has sounded the alarm with a report that warns of the dire consequences of unchecked climate change by as soon as 2040. Food shortages, wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs are all likely within our lifetimes unless aggressive, politically unpopular measures are taken immediately. The report warns of nightmarish consequences if the atmosphere warms by as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels, urging action to avoid the most severe impacts.
At the Brown University School of Public Health, researchers are investigating the health impacts of our rapidly changing climate, as well as other environmental threats, like exposure to lead and other common industrial chemicals. Professor Gregory Wellenius, director of the Center for Environmental Health and Technology, describes the Center as “the hub for environmental health research, training, and practice at Brown University, and across the region.”
One of the School of Public Health’s 13 research centers, the Center for Environmental Health and Technology (CEHT) was founded in 2007 by Dr. Karl Kelsey. Since then, it has grown to house over 20 faculty, trainees, students, staff, and affiliated members, all driven to promote human health and wellbeing through the improvement of the physical, chemical, social, and built environment in which we live and work.
The Center fosters research across three broad themes: Climate, Communities, and Health; Children’s Environmental Health; and Molecular Epidemiology and Epigenetics. Each area is led by a faculty expert, with postdoctoral research fellows, students, and visiting scholars engaged in investigating the complex connections between our environment and our health, and advancing scientific discoveries that impact population health.
Learn more about the Center’s current projects, and about its innovative approach to tackling the globe’s most pressing environmental health problems.
Climate, Communities, & Health
Environmental Health in a Changing Climate
Our climate is rapidly changing, with profound and sustained effects on human health. A key focus in this area is evaluating how climatic factors, such as temperature extremes and severe weather, affect human health today and under scenarios of projected change through the end of the century. For example, the group’s recent work suggests that more than 6000 deaths per year across the US are attributable to hot weather, and that the number of heat-related deaths in the 10 largest US metropolitan areas are projected to increase substantially through the end of the century. A recent study analyzing the health effects of summer weather across 14 New England communities found that deaths and emergency department visits rise significantly, well before the heat index hits the triple digits. This finding resulted in a policy change at the National Weather Service that lowered the Heat Advisory criteria for the New England region from 100 – 104 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 – 99 degrees Fahrenheit. This group is currently finding ways to improve the effectiveness of heat warnings and local heat action plans at reducing heat-related deaths and illness.
Air pollution is responsible for a staggering 8 million deaths every year. That’s more than 10% of all deaths, worldwide. Of these, an estimated 4.2 million deaths globally are due to ambient (outdoor) air pollution, while 3.8 million deaths are due to household air pollution caused by burning solid fuels for heating and cooking. Dr. Wellenius is a leading expert on the adverse effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health. His research has found that ambient air pollution is associated with higher blood pressure, higher risk of developing hypertension, and higher risk of hospitalization for heart failure and stroke among older adults, as well as higher risk of hypertensive disorders and diabetes in pregnant women. The group’s research also suggests that household air pollution in rural villages in Kenya and peri-urban villages in India have important adverse impacts on blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. Dr. Wellenius has testified to the health effects of air pollution before the US Senate and the US House of Representatives.
Understanding How Natural and Built Environments Affect our Health
Beyond the adverse health effects of urban air pollution, how does the natural and built environment around our homes impact our health? Dr. Wellenius and his colleagues are working to understand how the neighborhood environment affects health. His group has previously shown that living closer to major roadways is linked to a higher risk of hypertension and lower cognitive function among older adults, and to lower birth weight among newborns. Ongoing research suggests that living in neighborhoods with more vegetation, more access to outdoor recreational spaces, closer to bodies of water, or further from major roadways, may be associated with lower risk of adverse birth outcomes among pregnant women. The team is currently investigating the health impacts of the neighborhood environment in Rhode Island, New York City, and other cities around the country.
Children’s Environmental Health
Chemical Risks for Childhood Obesity and Cardiometabolic Risk
Numerous studies by Dr. Braun’s group have quantified the role of environmental chemicals in the etiology of birth weight, body composition, early childhood growth, breastfeeding duration, and childhood obesity—all known risk factors for cardiometabolic dysfunction later in life. Using sophisticated statistical methods, Dr. Braun’s team is working to identify periods during development when children are particularly susceptible to harm from chemical exposures. For example, in a landmark study, the team found evidence that the impact of phthalates on the risk of childhood obesity depended on when during childhood participants were exposed. Using molecular epidemiology approaches, Dr. Braun’s team also seeks to characterize the biological pathways by which chemical exposures threaten child health, including chemical-related impacts on adrenal function, changes in DNA methylation, and changes in the metabolome (all the metabolites present in your body).
If, When, and How Environmental Chemicals Impact Child Brain Development
Dr. Braun’s group is also identifying chemical risk factors for several childhood neurodevelopmental disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, and learning disabilities. They examine a wide range of potential neurotoxicants that are very common in the environment, including lead, triclosan, phthalates, and bisphenol A. A study of 52 different endocrine-disrupting chemicals suggests that exposure to some of these chemicals during pregnancy may be associated with autistic behaviors. Recently, Dr. Braun and his group have been examining the neurotoxicity of triclosan. This antimicrobial compound, found in some antibacterial soaps and body washes, toothpastes, and some cosmetics, has been scrutinized by regulatory agencies because of concerns about its toxicity to people. Dr. Braun’s group found that maternal exposure to triclosan near the time of delivery may be associated with reductions in the cognitive abilities of children. Finally, Dr. Braun’s team has reported that several chemical exposures are associated with alterations in thyroid hormones, suggesting this might be one biological pathway through which these chemicals exert their toxic effects.
Sources and Determinants of Environmental Chemical Exposures and Variability
Dr. Braun’s research group is enumerating the sources and determinants of chemical exposures among couples trying to conceive, pregnant women, and children. Their goal is to provide the evidence
Molecular Epidemiology and Epigenetics
Biomarkers in Case-Control and Prospective Studies of Gene-Environment Interaction
Dr. Kelsey’s group applies genetic techniques to directly assess genetic susceptibility to environmental and occupational exposures. Collaborating broadly with both national and international groups, Dr. Kelsey’s team tests specific genes for their ability to modify the effect of numerous known carcinogens and toxicants. This work continues, including studies utilizing one of the largest population-based case-control studies of head and neck cancer conducted over a more than 15-year period.
Epigenetics in Molecular Epidemiology
Epigenetic changes to our DNA can be described as occurring ‘on top of’ the regular coding sequences. Epigenetic alterations, including DNA methylation, are part of the normal regulation of our genes and the complex cellular activities in both health and disease, including cancer. DNA methylation was initially described by cancer biologists as acting to silence genes that are well known to be drivers of the cancer process. As it became clear that the molecular modifications in cancers included these epigenetic changes, Dr. Kelsey’s lab expanded, initially to include the study of epigenetic silencing of these genes, called “tumor suppressor genes.” These studies resulted in the discovery that exposure to carcinogens was associated with very specific changes in DNA methylation profiles. This work increased the general interest in the potential for environmental exposures to alter the epigenome. The Kelsey lab is at the cutting edge of integrating epigenomics in molecular epidemiology.
DNA Methylation as a Biomarker of Immunity
Dr. Kelsey and his team have shown that each type of cell or tissue in the body has a unique DNA
National Climate Assessment
This Congressionally mandated report, prepared every four years, summarizes the best available science on the changing climate and its impacts on Americans. It’s like a check-up at the doctor’s office, only for the planet. And instead of one doctor, more than 300 experts—including Professor Gregory Wellenius—produce a detailed account of the impacts of continued climate change on the health and wellbeing of people across the country and in each of 10 US regions. Their most recent assessment? The climate in the US has already changed substantially, these changes are primarily due to human activity, and continued climate change will impact nearly every aspect of the way we live, work, and play. nca2014.globalchange.gov
Health Effects Institute
Environmental Health in China
Environmental Health Education & Training
Public health faculty teach students at all levels the complex connections between our environment and our health.
Current Topics in Environmental Health
Professor Karl Kelsey introduces students to the field of environmental health, and demonstrates how environmental health is integrated into various aspects of our lives, both directly and indirectly. Topics include: toxic metals, vector-borne disease, food safety, water quality, radiation, pesticides, air quality, hazardous waste, risk assessment, and the role of the community in environmental health.
Climate Change and Human Health
Professor Gregory Wellenius provides students with a broad overview of the diverse impacts of projected climate change on human health, including effects of changing temperatures, extreme weather events, infectious and non-infectious waterborne threats, vector-borne disease, air pollution, the physical and built environment, and policies to promote mitigation and adaptation.
Topics in Environmental and Occupational Epidemiology
Professor Joseph Braun introduces students to the epidemiological study of historical and contemporary environmental/occupational agents, focusing on study design, biases, and methodological tools used to evaluate and extend the evidence linking exposures to human disease.
Place Matters: Exploring Community-Level Contexts on Health Behaviors, Outcomes and Disparities
Place matters for health behaviors and health outcomes. But what is place, and why does it matter? As with many health-related outcomes, the prevalence of ill health is unequally distributed across populations with certain features playing significant roles on health. This course, taught by Professor Akilah Dulin explores the features of community environments and their associations with health behaviors and health outcomes.