By Wendy Anson, Ph.D.
- Globally, approximately 18,000 people die daily from exposure to ambient and household air pollution.
- Ambient air pollution has been identified as the fifth largest cause of mortality in India.
- According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Ambient Air Pollution Database, major cities in India, including New Delhi, are among the top 10 world cities with the highest annual levels of particulate matter.
Soon after arriving at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, NIEHS Program Director Srikanth (Sri) Nadadur, Ph.D., an expert on air pollution and associated health effects, saw both a critical need and a unique opportunity. National and local newspapers covered the issue of air pollution almost daily, informing the general public about the gravity of the risks to human health. At the same time, Nadadur observed that air quality monitoring conducted by academic institutions was limited, and there was little effort aimed at understanding the health implications. Further, Nadadur explained, “There appeared to be little coordination among researchers, and no mechanisms for the various stakeholders to work together. I felt it was important to help the groups come together.” In the first month of his sabbatical, Nadadur reached out to government, scientists, and grassroots organizations.
Research Gaps Reveal Collaborative Opportunities
An informal group of Communities of Researchers (CoRs) emerged from Nadadur’s discussion with the Indian scientific community around three themes: health research, exposure assessment, and training. These CoRs consisted of about 15 U.S. and Indian scientists each, and met virtually to develop ideas for collaborative research that could address these critical issues.
The efforts resulted in the organization of the “Indo-U.S. Workshop to Explore Bilateral Research Opportunities to Address Air Quality and Health Issues,” sponsored by NIEHS and the Indo-U.S. Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF). Sundeep Salvi, M.D., director of the Chest Research Foundation of India, and Terry Gordon, Ph.D., a professor at the New York University School of Medicine, jointly led the organization of the workshop, which was held Nov. 8 – 10, 2016, at the India Habitat Center in New Delhi. Gwen W. Collman, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, delivered the workshop’s opening plenary talk, highlighting NIEHS leadership in air pollution health research.
A position paper on research gaps as well as opportunities for shared U.S.-India expertise is currently being planned for peer-reviewed publication. Education and training efforts are also being explored and would involve multiple stakeholders, including NIEHS, the IUSSTF, NIH’s Fogarty International Center, India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). The ICMR and CSIR are exploring avenues for short-term training opportunities, and CSIR is currently developing a memorandum of understanding to formalize a training mechanism with NIEHS.
E-health Centers and Big Data Signal a Promising Future
CSIR’s Anurag Agrawal, M.D., Ph.D., looks forward to training opportunities that will further advance young Indian researchers in learning to store, process, and extract value from large datasets. “Once you start doing that, you are looking at Big Data,” he said. Agrawal runs a center for respiratory disease and collaborates with scientists researching satellite measurements of air pollution. His long-term vision involves e-health centers where patient information is systematically recorded, digitized, and then related to environmental data. “That’s where the collaboration with NIEHS makes a lot of sense, in that a lot of our early career researchers would get key training needed to accomplish those data-based objectives,” Agrawal said.
Gordon notes that there are multiple existing efforts related to air pollution monitoring by academic groups and government agencies, but limited integration of the exposure and health data to be able to assess health impacts. He explained that a bilateral research and training initiative could build capacity and generate critical data and outcomes via long-term air pollution studies. “If you have temporal and spatial variability in the air pollution, you can try to see if those changes are associated with adverse health outcomes,” Gordon said.
Taking the Science to the Layman
Nadadur outlined other discipline-based knowledge areas and skills a bilateral training program could help build: environmental epidemiology, toxicology research design, statistical modeling, and communication, or “taking the science to the layman.” Nadadur emphasized, “The public needs to understand air pollution issues and preventative measures.”
Gordon underlined the benefit of capacity building, a dividend of training. “Governments tend not to believe other governments’ science; they need their own scientists’ expertise on their own air pollution,” he explained. “Once the home-grown science is in place, it’s easier to convince the regulatory people to do something about it.”
Nadadur concurs: “Sharing and transmitting the expertise, particularly in how to monitor health and exposure datasets, enables students to build an effective data base and start publishing. Solid pertinent findings can support policy implementations by the Indian government.”
The bilateral cooperative effort represents a unique opportunity to advance air pollution exposure research and provide specific mutual benefits. “India and China are phenomenal places to study this kind of pollution, with coal-burning power plants, and the burning of biomass,” noted Agrawal. “And here in India we also have researchers who are leaders in their fields.”
“Indian scientists are pioneers and leaders in the spatial monitoring of aerosol density,” Gordon pointed out.
“The U.S. has built tremendous capacity and resources,” Agrawal added. “Our CoR group represents a number of people who have, in their work, education, and outlook, successfully bridged our countries and their strengths. That’s why the potential to go ahead in this collaboration is particularly great.”