Division of Human Exposure & Health Effects
The Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Langone is home to a pioneering research program in human exposure and health effects. Our research teams investigate how exposure to ambient and occupational air pollution impacts human health, emphasizing the physical and chemical components of exposure atmospheres and their specific influences on health-related indices.
We have three major research goals for the next five years. First, we plan to pursue studies that determine the role of the components of ambient air particulate matter that may account for the ability of such relatively low-particle mass concentrations to elicit significant impacts on mortality and morbidity in the general population.
Second, in collaboration with the Division of Systemic Toxicology, we aim to identify the specific ambient air constituents that correlate most closely with the transient and persistent cardiac effects of subchronic exposures to particulate matter.
Third, we plan to extend ongoing studies in New York City and around the globe in order to determine the extent of the role that ambient air pollution, especially pollution related to fossil fuel combustion, plays in the high prevalence of pediatric asthma and its exacerbation.
Human Exposure and Health Effects Research
Led by division director George D. Thurston, ScD, our faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students focus on human exposure and health effects and address critical issues in the environmental health sciences. They have made important advances in exposure assessment including improved characterization of fine particles and their spatial variation in urban areas and in background aerosol in the northeastern United States.
Our researchers have also developed technologies and procedures to characterize the temporal day-to-day variations in ambient aerosol composition over extended periods of time in order to correlate such changes with observed daily variations in health-related cardiopulmonary responses.
In terms of the characterization of health effects of particulate matter air pollution in human populations, we have extended our capabilities beyond studies that rely on non-specific mass concentrations of particulate matter 10 µm or smaller in diameter (PM10) or 2.5 µm or smaller in diameter (PM2.5) to include associations between mortality and morbidity and specific source-related pollution constituents and components for both acute and cumulative health effects.
We have applied these approaches to populations of concern including asthmatic children in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City and residents of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who were acutely exposed to dust and smoke following the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001. Our World Trade Center pollution research involved collecting air samples daily beginning on September 14, 2001, at the former NYU Downtown Hospital, located five blocks east of the World Trade Center.
Recent studies have demonstrated that the concentrations of components of PM2.5 vary greatly within New York City, with much higher concentrations of nickel in the Bronx, Manhattan, and northern Queens than in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and southern Queens. This is due to the combustion of much more residual oil in the northern parts of New York City. Other studies involved demonstrating the composition dependence of PM2.5 effects on morbidity and mortality in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Our researchers’ notable strengths include expertise in respiratory tract dosimetry and the modeling and analysis of temporal and spatial variations of air pollution exposure and other environmental variables that can influence associations between measures of ambient air pollution and population-based data on mortality and morbidity.
In summary, the mission of the Division of Human Exposure and Health Effects is to identify the exposure-related factors that play significant roles in the causation and exacerbation of disease associated with population exposures to air pollutants in community and workplace settings. The division also provides a forum and focus for innovative and multidisciplinary research directed at resolving the complex issues affecting the exposure and response sides of the risk assessment paradigm.
Opportunities for broadening our background knowledge and perspectives are significantly enhanced through frequent joint meetings with the members of the Division of Systemic Toxicology, where opportunities are available to discuss hypotheses addressable by controlled inhalation exposures to concentrated ambient aerosols or realistic artificial atmospheres of suspect pollutant chemicals and mixtures.
World Trade Center Pollution Research
After the events of 9/11, division faculty actively participated in efforts to inform the public about potential environmental health implications of the collapse of the World Trade Center.
While public health officials reported that the air in Lower Manhattan was safe to breathe, many residents suffering from symptoms such as raw throats, burning eyes, nose bleeds, and intermittent asthma attacks were suspicious of what the authorities were telling them.
As voices independent from government officials, Dr. Thurston, former director of NYU Langone’s Community Engagement Core, and his colleagues informed the public about the department’s World Trade Center research findings.
After the attack, we attended meetings with parent–teacher associations and parent groups, advised the New York City Department of Education on environmental issues, and presented information at numerous public forums held in downtown Manhattan. We also hosted public events to present information about studies of World Trade Center–related pollution and health effects conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, which at the time was funding our research. We also partnered with other NIEHS-funded research centers to organize public forums, at which we presented research results and future plans and communicated important information to the public.
Our faculty members were also widely interviewed by the press and made media appearances on programs including CNN Live, CBS Nightly News, and NPR’s Morning Edition.