Planetary Health

Climate change, the loss of pollinators, rampant poverty and inequality, and emerging zoonotic diseases are prime examples of planetary-wide challenges that require an integrated approach. The Mailman School and Urban+Health Initiative’s goal is to promote research that simultaneously balances and maximizes human health, society, and ecology.

Planetary health is a new framework that seeks to unite the traditional distinctions between human health, societal well-being, and ecological integrity. The Lancet Commission on Planetary Health defines planetary health as:

The achievement of the highest attainable standard of health, wellbeing, and equity worldwide through judicious attention to the human systems—political, economic, and social—that shape the future of humanity and the Earth's natural systems that define the safe environmental limits within which humanity can flourish. Put simply, planetary health is the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.


Reducing the impacts of climate change on health and wellbeing is one of the greatest challenges we face as a global society. The Air Pollution and Climate Change Health Impact Assessment (AC-HIA) project links climate, air quality, and health models to assess future health impacts of air pollution under different scenario of climate change in the period 2030-2050.  Dr. Patrick Kinney and colleagues examined this question at three spatial scales: the entire globe, continental Europe, and over the greater Paris region. Each scale provides information that is useful in different policymaking contexts, from global to regional to local.  Moreover, interventions taken at the local scale are affected by the regional and global contexts. Results show that substantial benefits for cardiovascular mortality could be achieved by 2030 if aggressive climate mitigation policies are adopted.


Dr. Frederica Perera and her colleagues at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health conduct community-based research in New York City to study the health effects of prenatal and early postnatal exposures to common urban pollutants, with the aim of preventing environmentally-related disease in children. Our research has shown that exposure to air pollutants and toxic chemicals during the sensitive fetal and early childhood periods can result in multiple adverse effects on children’s health and neurobehavioral development.


Decreased exposure to air pollution in utero is linked with improved childhood developmental scores and higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a key protein for brain development, according to a study looking at child health following the closure of a coal-burning power plant in China led by researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health. The study is the first to assess BDNF and cognitive development with respect to prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a component of air pollution commonly emitted from coal burning. Results appear online in the journal PLOS ONE.


Funded by the U.S. Forest Service, the Built Environment and Health Research Group’s Urban Forestry Project is investigating the effects of tree cover on health, health behaviors and pollution levels. Led by Drs. Andrew Rundle and Gina Lovasi, the project is being conducted in collaboration with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, Queens College and the University of Vermont. The results of the work have been published in the Journal of Applied Remote Sensing and Environmental Health Perspectives.