Climate, Communities, & Health

Group Leader: Dr. Gregory Wellenius, Associate Professor of Epidemiology

Current Group Members: Dr. Shengzhi Sun (Research Associate), Dr. Clara Sears (Postdoctoral Research Associate), Dr. Erin Kulick (Postdoctoral Fellow), Dr. Amruta Nori-Sarma (Dean's Postdoctoral Fellow in Climate and Health), Dr. Melissa Eliot (Data Manager/Biostatistician), Dr. Seung-Ah Choe (Visiting Scholar), Keith Spangler (PhD Student), Sarah Welch (Undergraduate Student)

Recent Group Members: Dr. Kate Weinberger (now at the University of British Columbia), Rebecca Noga

Our group is focused on assessing the human health impacts of the physical and built environment in a rapidly changing world. Broadly, we consider the impacts on our health of where and how we live, work, and play. Key environmental exposures of interest to us include the threats to human health posed by continued climate change, ambient and household air pollution, traffic and aviation noise pollution, green space, and blue space. While our group takes a broad approach to the study of people's health and wellbeing, we have particular expertise in cardiovascular health and disease. 

A full list of our publications can be found at: https://goo.gl/REYkgP

In 2013, air pollution was responsible for a staggering 5.5 million deaths, or 10% of all deaths, worldwide. Of these, an estimated 2.9 million deaths globally were due to ambient (outdoor) air pollution while 2.6 million deaths were due to household air pollution caused by burning solid fuels for heating and cooking. Dr. Wellenius is a leading expert on the adverse effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health, including heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes. Research by our group provides evidence that ambient air pollution is associated with higher blood pressure, higher risk of developing hypertension, and higher risk of hospitalization for heart failure and stroke among older adults, and higher risk of hypertensive disorders and diabetes in pregnant women. Our group’s research also suggests that household air pollution in rural villages in Kenya and peri-urban villages in India have important adverse impacts on blood pressure and cardiovascular risk. Dr. Wellenius has provided invited testimony on air pollution health effects to the US Senate and the US House of Representatives.

  • O’Donnell MJ, Fang J, Mittleman MA, Kapral MK, Wellenius GA. Fine Particulate Air Pollution (PM2.5) and the Risk of Acute Ischemic Stroke: Results from the Registry of the Canadian Stroke Network. Epidemiology. 2011;22(3):422-431. PMCID: 3102528.
  • Wellenius GA, Burger MR, Coull BA, Schwartz J, Suh HH, Koutrakis P, Schlaug G, Gold DR, Mittleman MA. Ambient air pollution and the risk of acute ischemic stroke. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172:229-234. PMCID: 3639313.
  • Wellenius GA, Boyle LD, Wilker EH, Sorond FA, Coull BA, Koutrakis P, Mittleman MA, Lipsitz LA. Ambient fine particulate matter alters cerebral hemodynamics in the elderly. Stroke. 2013;44:1532-1536. PMCID: 3722046.
  • Honda T, Eliot MN, Eaton CB, Whitsel E, Stewart JD, Mu L, Suh H, Szpiro A, Kaufman JD, Vedal S, Wellenius GA. Long-term Exposure to Residential Ambient Fine and Coarse Particulate Matter and Incident Hypertension in Post-Menopausal Women. Environ Int. 2017;105:79-85.

Our climate is rapidly changing, with profound and sustained effects on human health. A key focus of our group is evaluating how present-day climatic factors, such as temperature extremes and severe weather, affect human health today and under scenarios of projected change through the end of the century. For example, our recent work suggests that more than 6000 deaths per year across the US are attributable to hot weather and that the number of heat-related deaths in the 10 largest US metropolitan areas are projected to increase substantially through the end of the century.  A recent study that analyzed the health effects of summer weather across 14 New England communities found that deaths and emergency department visits rise significantly, well before the heat index hits the triple digits. These findings resulted in a policy change at the National Weather Service that lowered the Heat Advisory criteria for the New England region from 100 - 104 degrees Fahrenheit to 95 - 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Our ongoing research seeks to find ways to improve the effectiveness of heat warnings and local heat action plans at reducing heat-related deaths and illness. As temperatures are projected to continue to increase, this research has direct influence on public health policy at the local and national level.

  • Gronlund CJ, Zanobetti A, Schwartz JD, Wellenius GA, O'Neill MS. Heat, heat waves, and hospital admissions among the elderly in the United States, 1992-2006. Environ Health Perspect.2014;122(11):1187-92. PMCID: 4216145.
  • Kingsley SL, Eliot MN, Gold J, Vanderslice RR, Wellenius GA. Current and Projected Heat-Related Morbidity and Mortality in Rhode Island. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(4):460-7. PMCID: PMC4829994. 
  • Wellenius GA, Eliot MN, Bush KF, Holt D, Lincoln RA, Smith AE, Gold J. Heat-Related Morbidity and Mortality in New England: Evidence for Local Policy. Environ Res. 2017;156:845-853. 
  • Weinberger KR, Haykin L, Eliot MN, Schwartz JD, Gasparrini A, Wellenius GA. Projected temperature-related deaths in ten large U.S. metropolitan areas under different climate change scenarios. Environ Int. 2017;107:196-204. PMCID: PMC5575805.

Beyond the adverse health effects of urban air pollution, how does the natural and built environment around our homes impact our health? Dr. Wellenius and his colleagues seek to understand how the neighborhood environment affects health. His group has previously shown that living closer to major roadways is linked with higher risk of hypertension and lower cognitive function among older adults, and with lower birth weight among newborns. Ongoing research suggests that living in neighborhoods with more vegetation, more access to outdoor recreational spaces, closer to bodies of water, or further from major roadways may be associated with lower risk of adverse birth outcomes among pregnant women. The team is investigating further the health impacts of the neighborhood environment in Rhode Island, New York City, and other cities around the country.

  • Kingsley SL, Eliot MN, Whitsel EA, Wang Y, Coull BA, Hou L, Margolis HG, Margolis KL, Mu L, Wu WC, Johnson KC, Allison MA, Manson JE, Eaton CB, Wellenius GA. Residential proximity to major roadways and incident hypertension in post-menopausal women. Environ Res. 2015;142:522-8. PMCID: PMC4609282.
  • Kingsley SL, Eliot MN, Whitsel EA, Huang YT, Kelsey KT, Marsit CJ, Wellenius GA. Maternal residential proximity to major roadways, birth weight, and placental DNA methylation. Environ Int. 2016;92-93:43-9. PMCID: PMC4913202.
  • Glazer KB, Eliot MN, Danilack VA, Carlson L, Phipps MG, Dadvand P, Savitz DA, Wellenius GA. Residential green space and birth outcomes in a coastal setting. Environ Res. 2018;163:97-107. PMCID: PMC5878729.
  • Peters JL, Zevitas CD, Redline S, Hastings A, Sizov N, Hart JE, Levy JI, Roof CJ, Wellenius GA. Aviation Noise and Cardiovascular Health in the United States: a Review of the Evidence and Recommendations for Research Direction. Curr Epidemiol Rep. 2018.
  • Kulick ER, Wellenius GA, Boehme AK, Sacco RL, Elkind MS. Residential Proximity to Major Roadways and Risk of Incident Ischemic Stroke in NOMAS (The Northern Manhattan Study). Stroke. 2018;49(4):835-41. PMCID: PMC5871599.