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Your Environment. Your Health.

2023 Grantee Highlights

Kevin Lane, Ph.D. – Applying Spatial Analysis to Air Pollution Research

February 28, 2023

Kevin Lane, Ph.D.
Lane studies the effects of air pollution and the built environment on human health in the U.S. and abroad. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lane)

Though two decades have passed, environmental health scientist Kevin Lane, Ph.D., still vividly remembers his first research assignment: tracking air pollution exposures among workers in the trucking industry for a large occupational health study. During college, Lane assisted with data collection, traveling to shipping docks and observing what were at times abysmal work environments.

To stay warm on below-freezing nights, for example, some forklift drivers would wrap cardboard and cellophane around their vehicles’ propane tanks, in attempt to redirect lost heat into their cabs.

“They were drawing in exhaust and basically asphyxiating,” Lane recalled. “Seeing conditions like that really hit home.”

Through his work on the study — the largest, most comprehensive exposure assessment of trucking industry workers at the time — Lane saw the power of research to improve lives.

“It struck me that research could change national policy, as well as inform simple strategies to improve a person’s life, like giving dock workers more breaks when it’s cold,” he said.

Driven by that early fieldwork experience, Lane pursued a master’s degree in urban and environmental planning at Tufts University, followed by a doctoral degree in environmental health at Boston University (BU), and postdoctoral work as a Yale Climate and Energy Institute fellow.

Now an assistant professor at BU, Lane continues to study the effects of air pollution and the built environment on human health in the U.S., as well as abroad. Often his research entails using geographic information systems (GIS) and computer modeling to visualize relationships between populations and exposure data.

“I found a passion for geospatial analysis during my doctoral studies,” Lane said. “I now push my students to find new applications in GIS, computer science and programming, and planetary sciences that we can use to improve health.”

Sticking With It

Crossing Continents

For the past decade, Lane has applied his expertise in spatial analysis to research in India, where rapid urbanization, air pollution, and climate change are raising concerns about health.

In a study funded partly by NIEHS, Lane and colleagues explored associations between urbanization and carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity — a predictor of cardiovascular disease — among participants of a large Indian health study. Using multiple measures of urbanization, including degree of land cover derived from satellite data, the team found that participants living in urban areas had significantly elevated average carotid-femoral pulse wave velocity compared to non-urban residents.

Lane is also part of an international team developing air pollution and temperature models for the Consortium for Climate, Health, and Air Pollution Research in India, a multidisciplinary effort to improve national public health in the country. The data will be freely accessible online for health and climate research.

“My hope as a U.S. researcher is to improve the transition between noticing air pollution problems and helping decision-makers bring down exposure levels through policy and practical strategies,” said Lane.

Among his various activities, Lane contributes to the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health Study, or CAFEH, a project he first worked on as an NIEHS doctoral trainee.

Funded by NIEHS and led by Doug Brugge, Ph.D., of the University of Connecticut, CAFEH launched as a community-based participatory research study. The original goal was to understand associations between highway pollution — specifically ultrafine particles — and cardiovascular health in Boston-area communities that have experienced environmental injustices.

Ultrafine particles are a byproduct of combustion and tend to concentrate in highly trafficked areas. Compared to larger particulate matter, ultrafine particles usually do not disperse from their source and therefore disproportionally affect people living near highways.

Growing evidence suggests that exposure to this microscopic matter may contribute to respiratory, neurological, and cardiovascular problems. For example, in 2016, Lane and colleagues published preliminary findings showing that exposure to ultrafine particles was linked to a biological marker for increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Subsequent CAFEH studies have also hinted at associations between ultrafine particle exposures and blood pressure changes, hypertension, and heart diseases.

More recently, Lane and teammates offered new considerations for metrics used in ultrafine particle exposure studies. Reporting in 2021, the team suggested that annual exposure to ultrafine particles might not reflect the cumulative effect of short, high-intensity exposures.

“Exposure is highly dependent on times of day and the environment you are in at any given time,” Lane explained. “For example, some people who live next to a congested corridor may be working elsewhere during peak traffic times.”

Lane is gratified to see CAFEH research informing local change. For example, CAFEH findings informed an updated master plan for Boston Chinatown. In addition, input from CAFEH researchers and community partners encouraged developers of several buildings near highways to incorporate high-grade air filtration measures.

“In my eyes, CAFEH is as close to perfect as you can get for a community-based participatory research study,” he said. “It was not about researchers descending upon communities with an idea. It was about working with them to formulate an idea from the start and integrating them throughout.”

New Research Takes Off

Over the past few years, Lane has widened his focus from road traffic to air travel, with the aim of informing requirements set by the Federal Flight Administration (FAA) for aircraft compliance with federal air quality standards. At the start of the pandemic, he seized the opportunity to study what happens to air pollution when plane traffic essentially stops.

Sean Mueller (left) and Kevin Lane, Ph.D. (right)
Lane, right, with doctoral student Sean Mueller at a field-monitoring site for a study probing associations between ultrafine particle pollution and aviation. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Lane)

“We don’t have a great understanding of how many ultrafine particles are coming from planes in flight, planes on the ground, and the traffic that comes from the airport,” he explained. “This was a once-in-lifetime event where we literally saw a drop-off to almost zero in aviation activity occurring at some points on certain days.”

With FFA funding, Lane, BU doctoral student Sean Mueller, and colleagues measured changes in ultrafine particle concentrations at sites near Boston’s Logan Airport during early and later stages of the pandemic and compared them to pre-pandemic levels.

Reporting in 2022, they showed that ultrafine particle numbers precipitously declined in the first few months of the crisis. As road traffic resumed, monthly ultrafine particle levels returned to pre-pandemic averages. However, at specific sites located downwind from the airport, particle counts remained lower than average until aviation picked up again, suggesting that planes uniquely contribute to ultrafine particle pollution in certain geographic locations, according to the authors.

Lane’s team is now crunching reams of data to see how different aspects of air travel, such as arrivals and departures, contribute to ultrafine particle pollution.

“Our ultimate goal is to create an ultrafine particle model of the area, so we can run health studies to understand the impact of exposure to aviation-related ultrafine particles in the greater Boston community,” he explained.

The runway ahead reminds Lane of the route he took to get here, and the people who encouraged him along the way.

“I think where I am today is a product of the mentors, like Doug Brugge and Madeleine Scammell, of Boston University, who believed in me,” he said. “I want to give research assistants and doctoral students the same opportunities that were given me. We need to cultivate them — they are our future innovators.”

Joseph Hamm, Ph.D. – Fostering Trust-Building to Promote Environmental Health

January 25, 2023

Hamm studies institutional trust for the Michigan State University SRP Center’s CEC. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Hamm)
Hamm studies institutional trust for the Michigan State University SRP Center’s CEC. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Hamm)

As a social scientist, Joseph Hamm, Ph.D., has worked with a variety of government organizations, including police departments, courts, natural resource agencies, public health departments, and other state and federal entities.

Currently a lead on the Community Engagement Core (CEC) within the Michigan State University Superfund Research Program (SRP), he strives to define and measure trust between the public and the government.

“Working across fields gives me opportunity to combine theoretical understandings of trust from organizational psychology and my practical experience with environmental managers to develop a more nuanced understanding of the best opportunities for building trust,” Hamm said. “Being a part of the CEC has given me the ideal case for taking ideas from one context into another.”

His overarching goal is to contribute to a deeper, fuller understanding of trust, one that crosses disciplines and helps different groups to work collaboratively toward better outcomes for community health and safety.

Bridging Fields

Hamm became interested in the concept of trust through his studies of jury decision-making. In a project focused on reducing failure-to-appear rates, he explored how perceptions of government play into whether people arrive for duty. He was inspired by concepts in the organizational psychology field, where trust scholars have long been interested in the nature and dynamics of trust.

While working with criminal justice agencies, Hamm became a trainee in the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program, which fosters interdisciplinary learning experiences. He soon began working with environmental managers and noticed a heavy emphasis on defining problems collaboratively between policymakers and the public.

As his research evolved, he crossed into environmental health. In his work with the CEC, Hamm and an interdisciplinary group of researchers began looking at government organizations’ community engagement in Midland, Michigan. The city is home to a chemical manufacturing plant that for decades contaminated the local watershed with dioxins, a family of industrial byproducts that can cause a wide range of negative health effects.

“The communities I work with are often in the difficult position of having an important local economic driver also contributing to environmental pollution and potential health problems,” Hamm noted. “I’m interested in understanding these complex trust dynamics between the community, regulatory agencies, and industry, to help all these groups work together in protecting community health.”

Pinpointing Community Concerns

Hamm presented on trust and why it is important at the Engaging Communities in the State Courts Initiative kick-off meeting, during his graduate education at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The initiative was designed to help state courts understand what problems the public saw and how they could best be addressed.
Hamm presented on trust and why it is important at the Engaging Communities in the State Courts Initiative kick-off meeting, during his graduate education at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The initiative was designed to help state courts understand what problems the public saw and how they could best be addressed. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Hamm)

Hamm’s role in the Midland project was to examine the trust relationships between government agencies, companies releasing chemicals, and residents.

He discovered that many community members had reported that ongoing cleanup efforts were proceeding well, and that the situation was largely under control. Their shock at the pollution — and by their city’s designation as an “area of concern” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — had apparently dissipated.

“There was a lot of concern initially,” Hamm said. “Thirty years later, what had been an incredibly contentious issue has, more or less, stabilized. The chemical company is working directly with EPA on remediation, and there is not a lot of skepticism in the community about whether they’re doing a good job.”

Also, because the company has been a long-time employer and supports Midland philanthropically, community members tend to have a high level of trust in the business, Hamm explained. The conversations he heard in Midland centered less on health than on property values, and somewhat on concern for possibly losing the chemical plant as an employer.

In addition, Hamm learned that decades of outreach and education by government agencies had enhanced public health behaviors. Many Midland residents were taking recommended precautions, like adapting their fish consumption habits. To maintain that momentum and prevent redundant efforts, Hamm and his team reconsidered their approach to community engagement. They shifted to supporting the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) in their existing engagement efforts, contributing new ideas about how to continue building and maintaining trust.

“We developed a strategy for helping MDHHS better engage the community. It’s a strategy that efficiently builds trust because it has MDHHS listening to the communities, teasing out the vulnerabilities they feel, and demonstrating MDHHS is working to protect those vulnerabilities,” Hamm explained.

Meanwhile, the nearby cities of St. Clair Shores, Saginaw, and Otsego — where the CEC team is now focusing its efforts — are at a different juncture. Dioxins released into the environment from a paper manufacturing facility are a problem, and residents appear more ambivalent about how the state is managing the contamination, according to Hamm.

He hopes to improve the relationship between residents and government organizations like MDHHS. If communities feel they can trust governance, he explained, they may be more likely to adopt government health and safety recommendations to protect themselves. Or, they will at least be better equipped to make informed decisions.

“Our role is to create a feedback loop between the community and the state that is focused on finding the particular vulnerabilities the community is feeling and to help MDHHS work that knowledge into the engagement they are already doing,” he said.

Coming Full Circle

As a next step, Hamm seeks to produce a new model for how to earn and protect trust in community engagement work that is usable across disciplines. He will take the lessons learned from the CEC’s work and develop a project focused on a criminal justice agency that has struggled to build trust in its community.

“I want to work with a police department and use the same methods of listening to the community’s concerns, then working those concerns back into the department’s outreach,” Hamm said. “Some Michigan communities are disproportionately affected both by environmental contamination and over-policing. This overlap can mean health outcomes are disproportionately worse than in communities without these dual issues. Our trust-building approaches can benefit community health in places facing many kinds of compounded challenges.”

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