Environmental Epidemiology

Research in environmental epidemiology encompasses exogenous risk factors and health outcomes. Exogenous risk factors broadly include environmental contaminants (particularly exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, pesticides heavy metals, etc), the built environment (such as building, housing, and land use), and social factors (such as psychosocial stress). A wide variety of outcomes are studied including neurodevelopmental outcomes, cardiovascular and metabolic outcomes (including obesity), neurological disorders (especially essential tremor and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), traumatic and injury outcomes, and psychiatric disorders.

Research within environmental epidemiology spans from studies in the local Washington Heights community to studies in the US, and studies abroad. Several faculty are heavily involved with international birth cohorts in Norway, Israel, Brazil and other countries. Other faculty are actively conducting intervention and community-based field trials in cities in the US and other countries. Studies integrate traditional epidemiologic study designs with studies of biomarkers, geographical information systems, social epidemiologic methods, life course methods, and implementation science.

As environmental epidemiology is inherently multidisciplinary, faculty have collaborations with other departments within the Mailman School of Public Health, the Columbia University Medical Center and throughout the world. Major collaborations include with the Departments of Biostatistics, Environmental Health Sciences, Population and Family Health, Neurology, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Pediatrics, Medicine, and Psychiatry and with faculty within the Institute for Human Nutrition.

The Department of Epidemiology, jointly with the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, sponsors a bimonthly seminar series, Environmental Epidemiology Connections. While primarily a journal club, the seminar also provides a forum for students and post-doctoral fellows to present research ideas to a receptive audience with constructive feedback in moving ahead early research ideas with the greatest scientific merit.

Training Opportunity: The Training Program in Environmental Life Course Epidemiology, administered by the Department of Epidemiology with cooperation from the Department of Environmental Health Sciences, provides training to pre-doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows on the methods and substance of life course and environmental epidemiology and their intersection.

Selected Projects

Studies within the Nulliparous Mothers to Be Consortium

Faculty collaborate with this consortium in several ongoing projects. The Prenatal Determinants of Telomere Length study, funded by NICHD, examines associations between a variety of prenatal factors, including biomarkers of oxidative stress and measures of psychosocial stress, and telomere length at birth. (Telomeres are the protective tips of the chromosomes.) A second study, funded by NIEHS, examines associations between exposure to Hurricane Sandy during pregnancy (and specific trimesters of pregnancy) and pregnancy outcomes and telomere length. Finally, using funding from the Children’s Health and Exposure Assessment group (CHEAR, funded by NIEHS), we are performing a series of nested case control studies of phthalate exposure during each trimester of pregnancy and preeclampsia, new onset antenatal hypertension and spontaneous preterm birth. This later study includes a further assessment of metabolomics in first trimester urine and preeclampsia.

Environmental Epidemiology of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

ALS is a devastating and uniformly fatal (within 2-3 years of diagnosis) motor neuron disease of which little is known regarding etiology and for which very few treatments are available (and those which are only prolong life by 2-3 months). Using two national cohorts, COSMOS (funded by NIEHS) and ARREST (funded by ATSDR/CDC) we are looking at a variety of environmental risk factors for ALS and studying possible mechanisms.  These studies focus on those risk factors associated with oxidative stress, such as exposure to lead, pesticides, and electromagnetic fields, and psychosocial stress, as well as smoking and physical activity. The ATSDR/CDC has recently provided funding for studies of mitochondrial DNA and epigenetic changes in the blood, brain and spinal cord within the National ALS Registry. 

Follow up Studies of the Child Health and Development Studies (CHDS) Cohort

Along with our partners at the CHDS faculty have designed and conducted several studies within this cohort, now age 55-60. These studies have included prenatal exposure to organochlorine compounds and pregnancy outcomes, neurodevelopment and male reproduction, prenatal factors and breast density measures, cardiovascular disease and cognition in adulthood. Faculty have also followed members of this cohort in a study of health disparities in adulthood. 

Multi-city Randomized Trials of Vacant Land Abatement

In partnership with local municipalities and the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, the University of Michigan and Rutgers University, this series of intervention studies will determine the health and safety effects of improving vacant land in Philadelphia, New Orleans, Flint, Michigan, Youngstown, Ohio, and Camden, New Jersey. With funding from the NIH, the CDC and the US Forest Service, standardized, reproducible, vacant land treatment processes are being implemented as part of multiple study arms in multiple cities. Over 100 communities nationwide who have implemented vacant land greening programs will also be surveyed for their experiences and lessons learned.

Randomized Trials of Abandoned Building Fixes

Urban residents see abandoned buildings every day on their way to work or school. With funding from the NIH and the CDC, we are now conducting the first citywide randomized controlled trial of the effects of abandoned housing remediation on various health and safety outcomes including substance abuse and violence. Hundreds of abandoned houses in Philadelphia will be randomly assigned to receive full abandoned housing remediation, graffiti and trash clean-up, trash clean-up only, and no housing remediation or clean-up. Longitudinal outcomes on and near these houses will be measured before and after treatment.

Unit Faculty

Unit leader: Pam Factor-Litvak