SPH Launches Center for Climate and Health
Announced on Earth Day, the center will be led by Gregory Wellenius and will develop and translate research to help communities become more resilient to worsening climate change.
With each passing year, human-induced climate change becomes a greater threat to the health of the public, and vulnerable populations continue to bear the brunt of extreme weather events and conditions that are increasing in frequency and intensity.
From the physical and mental health effects of extreme heat, to the chronic disease risks posed by air pollution exposure, climate scholars at the School of Public Health are at the forefront of research focused squarely on the health impacts and social and economic inequalities of climate change.
To elevate this critical work, SPH has launched the Center for Climate and Health (CCH), a cross-disciplinary endeavor that will foster innovative research and training to inform and support climate mitigation and adaptation efforts on a local, national, and global scale. The center represents the school’s Climate, the Planet, and Health strategic direction—one of five strategic directions which reflect areas of SPH’s strength, potential for growth, and most important, critical public health need.
The concentration of people working in this space at BU School of Public Health is unparalleled to any other institution.
“Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat to our health and well-being, and the concentration of people working in this space at BU School of Public Health is unparalleled to any other institution,” says Gregory Wellenius, director of CCH and professor of environmental health. Wellenius previously led the school’s Program on Climate and Health, which he launched when he joined SPH in January 2020. “The new center will increase the reach and the impact of the great work in this area that is already taking place at BUSPH,” Wellenius says.
Collaboration across SPH departments is central to the center’s mission, research, and programming. More than a dozen faculty members across the Departments of Environmental Health (EH), Epidemiology, Global Health, and Community Health Sciences are leading research that is either directly related or adjacent to climate and health, and the school is in the midst of a comprehensive faculty hiring search that will further expand the breadth and depth of climate and health expertise at SPH.
In addition to promoting community and collaborative research within SPH and BU, CCH will also develop shared resources that will make it easier for faculty, staff, and students across the school to meaningfully engage in research, training, and practice around climate and health.
The climate and health research portfolio at SPH spans a wide range of data-driven projects and action, which include strengthening cities’ climate action plans, conducting spatial analysis and building innovative modeling tools to measure the effects of air pollution, applying deep learning algorithms to assess the health impacts of greenspace, assessing the multi-faceted health impacts in exposure to extreme heat, and understanding the racial, social, economic, and geographic inequities that persist among the vulnerable populations who are most burdened by these adverse effects of climate change.
“The creation of the new Center for Climate and Health will enhance and solidify BUSPH’s growing leadership in this important area of research, teaching, and practice,” says Patrick Kinney, Beverly A. Brown Professor of Urban Health in EH and a partnering faculty member of the center. Named one of the world’s top climate scientists by Reuters last year, Kinney is a trained air pollution epidemiologist, but has shifted his research to focus more on climate “co-benefits”—the actions that people and governments can take today to reduce the impact of climate change in the future and improve health today. He is currently working on several projects, including a theoretical analysis of Boston’s plan to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050 and how that achievement could improve the region’s air quality and health outcomes. “There is an urgent need for evidence-based knowledge to both reduce growing health risks and to maximize health and equity benefits of the global transition to a low-carbon future,” Kinney says.
Kevin Lane, assistant professor of environmental health and a partnering faculty member of CCH, also studies the human health effects of air pollution, both in the US and abroad. Lane is the BUSPH lead for an international project called the Consortium for Health Effects of Air Pollution Research (CHAIR India), which is a multi-university collaboration of researchers who have created a new nationwide modeling tool that builds daily gridded models of air pollution and heat in India. This type of modeling is used for spatial analysis in the US and Europe, but this is the first time that it is available in India.
Marcia Pescador Jimenez, assistant professor of epidemiology and partnering faculty member who joined SPH last September, is studying the influences of the urban environment influences on cardiovascular health, neurodegenerative diseases, and racial disparities in health. She recently received a $700k grant from the National Institute on Aging to investigate the direct and indirect effects of urban greenspace on Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
Several faculty members are studying the physical, mental, and disproportionate health effects of exposure to extreme heat. Partnering faculty member Amruta Nori-Sarma, assistant professor of environmental health, along with Wellenius, recently published a paper in JAMA Psychiatry that linked hotter-than-normal days to increased emergency room visits for mental health crises. They also published a study that showed that extreme heat also increased visits to the emergency room among younger and middle-aged adults, in The BMJ.
“What really give me hope is that the climate change conversation is no longer a question of ‘if’ or ‘when’ but ‘what do we do now?’” Nori-Sarma says. “People are really understanding the sense of urgency around climate change as a global issue that is impacting us, not in the future, but where we can see the tangible impacts on our lives today. People are focused on how we can address these issues equitably and understand the needs of different communities, and they are gaining the ability to advocate for the things that they need in order to make their own lives healthier.”
SPH researchers are also exploring possible links between ambient heat and spikes in gun violence. Partnering faculty member Jonathan Jay, assistant professor of community health sciences, is examining this association in several US cities.
“We’ve long known that gun violence peaks in the summer months, and past studies from a few cities have found that shootings increase on warmer days, but it wasn’t clear whether this temperature-specific effect was especially important to overall gun violence patterns,” says Jay, who is also the director of the Research for Innovations on Safety and Equity (RISE) Lab at SPH. He says he discussed this study idea with firearm research colleagues at the University of Washington, who were inspired by the major heatwave in the Pacific Northwest last summer, and he immediately thought about working with Wellenius and his SPH team.
“We’re finding that a sizeable proportion of shootings are attributable to above-average daily temperatures,” Jay says. “These aren’t necessarily clustered in the summer months, when overall gun violence is highest—they can come just as easily from an unusually warm day in the spring or fall. In other words, higher daily temperatures really do increase risk for gun violence in a meaningful way, and that’s something that gun violence prevention researchers and practitioners need to understand.”
Other faculty members currently partnering with CCH include Jonathan Levy, chair and professor of environmental health; Patricia Fabian and Madeleine Scammell, associate professors of environmental health; Amelia Wesselink, research assistant professor of epidemiology; and Clarissa Valim, research associate professor of global health.
“This is a very exciting time for BUSPH, and I can’t wait to see what this group can achieve by working even more closely together,” Wellenius says.
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