A new Centre for Environment and Health has opened at Imperial College London and King’s College London, to study the effects that environmental factors from traffic fumes and noise from overhead aircraft, to chemicals in drinking water, have on health.
In particular, the centre will particularly focus on vulnerable people, including children and the elderly, and how environmental factors outside their control could be increasing their risk of respiratory problems, heart disease and cancer.
The centre is core funded by the Medical Research Council and the UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), with the two universities funding new posts and studentships. Its researchers will be working with the HPA so that if their work reveals a new health risk, the HPA can take account of the findings in advice to government.
There is currently limited evidence about the effects of most pollutants on health, because much of the relevant data comes from animal studies. Humans are typically exposed to low doses of pollutants, often acting in combination, over long periods of time. This makes their effects difficult to measure.
The centre will conduct epidemiological studies of large numbers of people and analyse in detail which pollutants they are exposed to during their daily lives. The researchers draw on new tools in areas such as mapping, modelling, toxicology, genomics, proteomics and metabonomics to answer questions such as which pollutants people are being exposed to, and when, and how the levels of these change over time.
Paul Elliott from Imperial College London, Director of the centre, said, “It's quite difficult to work out whether certain pollutants are affecting our health because we are exposed to so many, over such long periods of time. Our new centre is developing methods to look at the exposure of many thousands of people. Through this research we will investigate the extent, for example, a particular chemical is contributing to a particular health problem.”
Projects planned at the centre include a study exploring whether living near land that is contaminated with chemicals from industrial and domestic pollution affects health. The researchers will analyse data on a large group of people living near such land to see whether there are any unusual patterns of health problems.
A second study of people living near London’s Heathrow airport will explore how air and noise pollution can affect health, while another project will assess whether London’s Low Emission Zone, which was introduced in 2008 to improve air quality by reducing diesel fumes, has a beneficial effect on health.