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Is your environment damaging your health? New center aims to find out

The damage that our modern living and working environment could be doing to our health will be investigated by a new 5M MRC-HPA Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London and King's College London, which launches today.

The new Centre will analyse the health of people across the UK and how this is affected by aspects of the environment in which they live and work, from traffic fumes and noise from overhead aircraft, to chemicals in the environment such as the by-products of disinfection in the water supply.

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 (MRC) 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 Centre's findings in its advice to government.

Researchers estimate that air pollution alone could be causing several thousands of people to be admitted to hospital and die prematurely each year, because of the damage minute particles of pollutants could do to the heart and lungs.

However, there is currently limited evidence about the effects of most pollutants on people's 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 new Centre will conduct epidemiological studies of large numbers of people and analyse in detail which pollutants they are exposed to during their daily lives. Its researchers will use 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.

The researchers hope that the new work will help reveal where pollutants may be posing even small excess risks to health. Clusters of health problems may be visible in large groups that might not show up when looking at smaller groups of people.

Professor Paul Elliott from Imperial College London, the Director of the new MRC-HPA Centre for Environment and Health, said: "Your body has to deal with hundreds of different pollutants every day, the vast majority of which are probably harmless. However, we know that some pollutants can cause health problems for example, some of the minute particles found in diesel fumes can make people's asthma symptoms worse.

"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."

Professor Frank Kelly from King's College London, the Deputy Director of the new Centre, said "We are very much looking forward to working with colleagues at Imperial College to address a range of challenging environmental issues which contribute to the chronic disease burden in the 21st century".

Dr John Stephenson, the Director of Research and Development at the Health Protection Agency, added: "The establishment of the MRC-HPA Centre for Environment and Health provides the UK with a world-class research facility, capable of assessing the impact of environmental factors on human health, which will greatly enhance the HPA's ability to provide accurate and timely advice to Government."

Projects planned at the new Centre include:

  • A study exploring whether land that is contaminated with chemicals from industrial and domestic pollution could have a negative impact on people's 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. Some studies have suggested that living near contaminated land might be associated with an increased risk of reproductive problems.

  • A study of people living near London's Heathrow airport, exploring how air and noise pollution can affect people's health. The research will analyse the effects of living near road traffic from airport uses as well as aeroplanes. Current evidence suggests that air pollution and noise affect the cardiovascular system in different ways. Building on existing work, the new study will look at the effects of exposure to both forms of pollution together.

  • A study exploring whether London's Low Emission Zone, which was introduced in 2008 to improve London's air quality by reducing diesel fumes, has a beneficial effect on the health of people living and working in the Greater London area. The Low Emission Zone targets large diesel-engined vehicles, such as lorries. It requires the most individually polluting vehicles travelling in the Greater London area to either meet specific emissions standards or pay a daily charge.


Contact: Laura Gallagher
Imperial College London

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