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How Do Energy Policies and Climate Change Affect Air Quality—and Our Health?

New center, led by Yale and Johns Hopkins researchers, will tackle this complex question

March 4, 2016
Media Contact: Phil Sneiderman
Office: 443-997-9907/Cell: 410-299-7462
prs@jhu.edu On Twitter @filroy

A new interdisciplinary science team, led by experts from Yale and Johns Hopkins universities and funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will try to figure how power generation trends, climate change and public policy interact to affect air quality. A key goal of this project is to trace how the resulting changes in air pollution may affect the health of people who live and work in the mid-Atlantic area.

To help unravel this environmental puzzle, the EPA has awarded a five-year $10-million grant to establish a new SEARCH Center. (SEARCH is short for Solutions for Energy, AiR, Climate and Health.) This center, based at Yale and co-led by Johns Hopkins, includes prominent researchers from Johns Hopkins and eight other institutions.

Michelle Bell, the Mary E. Pinchot Professor of Environmental Health at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is director of the new center. Bell earned two advanced degrees at Johns Hopkins: a PhD in environmental engineering in 2002 and a master’s in environmental management and economics in 1999. She also held a postdoctoral faculty position in 2003 at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Benjamin Hobbs, an environmental management professor at Johns Hopkins, is co-director of a new EPA-funded research center that will focus on air pollution and public health. Photo by Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University.

The SEARCH center “is designed to have a high level of interdisciplinary collaboration,” Bell said. “Our research will link policies and research questions that historically have been largely studied separately. Our overall aim is to provide scientific evidence that can inform more effective decision-making to improve public health.”

She added, “The more scientific evidence we can give of the consequences, especially for health but also other consequences, of different energy scenarios and policy scenarios, the more informed our decisions can be.”

The center’s co-director is Benjamin Hobbs, who directs the Environment, Energy, Sustainability and Health Institute (E²SHI) at Johns Hopkins. This institute, launched in 2010, draws on faculty expertise in environmental science and engineering, public health and other areas, to promote research and education in topics ranging from green energy practices to climate change and related health issues.

About $3 million of the new EPA grant will be channeled through E²SHI to support Johns Hopkins’ interdisciplinary contribution to the research effort, Hobbs said, making this the institute’s most ambitious endeavor since its launch. “This is huge for E²SHI,” he said. “The institute was created to get involved in major projects like this one.”

With help from E²SHI-affiliated researchers, the new EPA center will explore how different energy policy scenarios could affect public health in a particular region. For example, if market conditions or governments regulations cause a power generation plant or a large number of motorists to switch to fuels that emits fewer pollutants, how would that impact the health of nearby people with respiratory ailments? If, at the same time, climate change leads to higher temperatures and therefore more use of air conditioning and more power consumption, how would that increase the risk of smog episodes?

One way the center plans to gather data for this research is by developing and deploying air pollution sensors—including ones that individuals can wear—to measure real-world air pollution throughout Baltimore.

“The quality of Baltimore’s air is profoundly affected by the ways we use energy for our buildings, transportation, industry and electricity,” said Hobbs, “Since our country is in the middle of huge changes in how we use energy, so too will the sources and effects of air pollutants change.”

To understand the impact of these changes and then advise policy makers on how to address them, the new center requires the expertise of researchers from a diverse range of fields, including public health, sensor development, biostatistics, climate science and energy use projections. The goal is to produce the most accurate predictions about which developments are likely to increase or curb air pollution, and how soon and what kind of corrective action may be needed.

Hobbs said the interdisciplinary team will work closely with state, local and federal officials so that the center’s findings will have an impact beyond publication in scholarly journals. “There will be a serious effort,” he said, “to inform and advise policy-makers who are involved in these important issues.”

In addition to co-directing the new EPA center and directing E²SHI, Hobbs is the Schad Professor of Environmental Management in Johns Hopkins’ Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, based within the university’s Whiting School of Engineering.

Other Johns Hopkins researchers who will participate in the EPA center’s project are from the Whiting School, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and the Bloomberg School of Public Health. They are Kirsten A. Koehler, an assistant professor of environmental health engineering; J. Hugh Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental engineering; Howard E. Katz, a professor of materials science and engineering; Benjamin Zaitchik, an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences; Roger Peng, an associate professor of biostatistics; and Frank Curriero, an associate professor of epidemiology.

“Over the last 30 years, it was at Johns Hopkins’ School of Public Health that much of the path-breaking research was done on how air pollution can sicken people and lead to early deaths,” Hobbs said. “This research has directly led to tighter pollution rules that have measurably improved our air quality and health. The Environmental Protection Agency wants to continue that progress, and I’m proud that Johns Hopkins, Yale, and other universities will be working together in this new center to help improve the environment for all of us.”

Color digital photo of Ben Hobbs available; contact Phil Sneiderman.

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