Air Pollution, Climate Change, & Health

“By 2020, the costs to improve air quality are predicted to skyrocket to $2 trillion. A key culprit of air pollution is power plants, which account for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions.” – Excerpt from article about Dr. Zigler’s and Dr. Dominici’s work in Big, Messy Data – Getting to Clean Air by Orna Feldman

Debates surrounding the control of air quality in the US have increasingly emphasized the need for evidence of the effectiveness of specific regulatory policies. Policy makers, industry, and the public have questioned whether past regulatory efforts to reduce ambient air pollution have actually yielded demonstrable improvements in public health, which existing strategies have provided the greatest health benefits, and whether the associated costs of these efforts are justified.

As air pollution levels continue to decrease and regulatory actions become more costly, the quantification of the public health benefits of cleaner air will be subject to an increased level of scrutiny. Epidemiological analyses of claims data have provided strong evidence of the adverse health effects of air pollution, mostly using data from urban areas. Yet significant gaps in knowledge remain, particularly with regard to the health effects of long-term exposure to lower levels of air pollution.

In addition, humans will be exposed to the adverse consequences of climate change. We expect more frequent and intense heat waves, wildfires, droughts. Increased exposure to many environmental stressors will adversely affect human health, but the magnitude of this impact is largely unknown. To prevent and mitigate these adverse health effects we need to identify who is most vulnerable and develop the most effective interventions.

Dr. Dominici is a data scientist whose pioneering scientific contributions have advanced public health research around the globe. Her life’s work has focused broadly on developing and advancing methods for the analysis of large, heterogeneous data sets to identify and understand the health impacts of environmental threats and inform policy.

Her team assembles and integrates data from the following sources and seeks to use the platform to elevate the impact and quality of public health research. Integrated dataset includes: (1) billing claims from the Medicare system, which collect information on diseases, day of diagnosis and/or hospital admission, prescription drugs, death, day of death, medical expenditures for each treatment, race, age, gender, and zip code of residence for virtually the entire population of elderly, over 48 million individuals; (2) the Air Pollution Monitoring Networks from the Environmental Protection Agency which annually collect billions of hourly measurements of ambient air pollution from several thousand monitoring stations; (3) the Weather Monitoring Network which collects hourly levels of temperature, pressure, wind velocity, and dew point temperature from thousands of monitoring stations; and, (4) the US Census data which include extensive socio-economic and demographic information for all the several thousands of zip codes in the US.

Through rigorous statistical analyses of terabytes of data, Dr. Dominici’s team has provided the scientific community and policy makers with robust evidence on the adverse health effects of air pollution, noise pollution, and climate change. Her studies have directly and routinely impacted air quality policy, leading to more stringent ambient air quality standards in the US.

In collaboration with scientists across Harvard (from the School of Engineer and Applied Science, Institute of Quantitative Social Sciences, the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School and the Department of Environmental Health at the Chan School), Dr. Dominici:

  • Uses satellite data to estimate exposure to air pollution and the adverse health impacts in the US and in India (with Drs. Joel Schwartz and Antonella Zanobetti), which is experiencing catastrophic consequences from air pollution and heat waves;
  • Develops innovative methods for reproducible research to evaluate emission control strategies implemented at over 4,000 power plants in the US (with Dr. Cory Zigler);
  • Develops analytical and informatics methods for estimating the health impacts of the totality of environmental and genetic exposures in children (with Dr. Chirag Patel);
  • Develops analytical methods and conduct epidemiological studies to estimate the health impacts of wildfires under climate change (with Dr. Michelle Bell)
  • Co-directs (with Brent Coull) the Training Program in Environmental Health Statistics, which prepares pre-doctoral and postdoctoral fellows for research careers in the application of biostatistics to environmental health.