Human Exposure and Health Effects

General Information

The Department of Environmental Medicine's Research Program in Human Exposure and Health Effects is focused on defining the relationships of human exposures to ambient and occupational air pollution with their health effects, emphasizing the physical and chemical components of exposure atmospheres and their specific influences on health-related indices.

Research Activities

The faculty, post-doctoral trainees, and graduate students in this program area are addressing critical issues in the environmental health sciences. In recent research, they have made advances in exposure assessment including improved characterization of fine particles and their spatial variation within urban areas and in the regional northeastern U.S. background aerosol. They 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, this research group has extended its capabilities beyond studies that rely on non-specific mass concentrations of PM10 and/or PM2.5 to associations between mortality and morbidity and specific source-related pollution constituents and components for both acute and cumulative health effects. They have applied these approaches to populations of particular concern, including asthmatic children in the South Bronx region of New York City (NYC) and to residents of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn who were acutely exposed to dust and smoke following the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) buildings on September 11, 2001. This involved utilization of air samples that we collected at the former NYU Downtown Hospital (5 blocks east of the WTC) on a daily basis beginning on September 14, 2001. Recent studies have demonstrated that the concentrations of components of PM2.5 vary greatly within NYC, with much higher concentrations of nickel in Bronx, Manhattan and northern Queens than in Brooklyn, Staten Island and southern Queens due to the combustion of much more residual oil in the northern parts of NYC.

Other notable strengths of the Program faculty include respiratory tract dosimetry and the modeling and analysis of temporal and spatial variations of air pollution exposure and other environmental variables that can influence, or confound, associations between measures of ambient air pollution and population based data on mortality and morbidity.

In summary, the mission of this Research Program is to identify the exposure related factors that play significant roles in the causation and/or exacerbation of disease associated with population exposures to air pollutants in community and/or work place settings. It also provides a forum and focus for innovative and multidisciplinary research directed at resolving the complex issues affecting both the exposure and response sides of the risk assessment paradigm. The opportunities for broadening the background knowledge and perspectives of the Program members are significantly enhanced by having frequent joint meetings with the members of the Systemic Toxicology Program of the Department, where opportunities are available to discuss hypotheses addressable by controlled inhalation exposures to concentrated ambient aerosols and/or realistic artificial atmospheres of suspect pollutant chemicals and mixtures.

Specific program goals for the next five years are to:

  1. Pursue studies that determine the role of the components of ambient air PM 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.
  2. In collaboration with the Systemic Toxicology Program, to identify the specific ambient air constituents that correlate most closely with both the transient and persistent cardiac effects by subchronic exposures to particular matter.
  3. Extend ongoing studies in New York City in order to determine the extent of the role that ambient air pollution (and especially traffic-related air pollution) plays in the high prevalence of pediatric asthma and its exacerbation.

Core Leadership

Dr. George D. Thurston, the Program Director for Human Exposure and Health Effects, received an Sc.D. in environmental health science from Harvard University's School of Public Health, and did further research on mortality associated with air pollution at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before joining NYU in 1988. His research on air pollution and its health effects at NYU has focused on ozone and particulate matter through studies on panels of children in summer camps, in schools in the South Bronx, and adults with pre-existing chronic diseases, as well as on time-series analyses of hospital admissions and excess daily mortality, and on the influence of chronic exposures on longevity in numerous U.S. communities. He has numerous peer-reviewed scientific publications, and has chaired, or been a member of numerous scientific committees for the National Research Council, NIEHS, and EPA. He recently served on the Outdoor Air Polution Working Group for the WHO Global Burden of Disease 2010 Report release in December 2012. Professor Thurston is presently a standing member of the NIH Study Section on Cardiovascular and Sleep Epidemiology (CASE).