Understanding the links between health and the environment

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The MRC Centre for Environment and Health is doing vital research to advance our knowledge of how pollution and other environmental factors affect human health.

It is no mystery that our environment has a major influence on health, but there is still much that is unknown.

  • what exactly are the links between factors such as air pollution, noise, non-ionising radiation and ill-health?
  • how do these links work?
  • what does this mean for society?

Many of these questions are poorly-understood, but are essential if we are to make the right decisions for our environment and our wellbeing.

The Centre for Environment and Health (CEH), funded by the Medical Research Council, has been working to address these gaps since 2009.

Based at Imperial College London, the Centre has over 30 research groups and around 200 associated research staff and students. Led by Centre Director Professor Paul Elliot CBE, they work to:

  • detect and quantify associations between environmental factors and health
  • understand impacts on society
  • inform policy.

Research ranges from detailed analysis of disease pathways and mechanisms through to large-scale population studies.

The air that we breathe

The recent death of Ella Adoo Kissi-Debrah in South London, linked by the coroner to local air pollution, starkly highlighted the issue of air quality, an increasing concern for cities worldwide.

Imperial College’s Environmental Research Group, led by Professor Frank Kelly, Deputy Director of the CEH, have been at the forefront of research guiding air pollution policies. Including the ultra-low emission zone (uLEZ) in London.

Under the Centre’s Environmental Exposures programme, they work closely with the Greater London Authority, providing advice and policy input, and are researching the health benefits of the uLEZ to help other UK cities developing plans for clean air zones.

Making cities healthier

More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. The CEH Healthy Cities, Healthy People programme is working to advance knowledge of how social, economic and technological developments affect the environment and health in urban areas, from air quality to flood risk.

This research is helping cities worldwide to maintain healthy urban environments, develop sustainably, and support healthy lives.

Pollution-effect pathways

The centre also has a focus on the biochemistry and toxicology of pollution, through the Molecular Signatures and Disease Pathways programme. For example, working with the MRC Toxicology Unit, researchers have explored how brake dust exacerbates inflammation and compromises the work of white blood cells.

Other work looks at the effects of wood smoke and diesel particulates. By understanding the specific pathways by which different pollutants affect human health, we can design better policy to regulate specific emissions.

Multiple disciplines, new frontiers

The centre’s priorities include:

  • growing capability and expanding the frontiers of environmental health research
  • developing new methods in biostatistics, data science and related disciplines.

Centre members have been awarded funds from the UK Research and Innovation Strategic Priorities Fund Clean Air Programme. This is a £42.5 million multidisciplinary investment to explore near-term and emerging air pollution challenges and health risks, with vulnerable populations at its core.

Describing the work of the MRC CEH, Professor Paul Elliot emphasised that:

A proper understanding of the health impacts of environmental exposures depends on many scientists from different disciplines working closely together.

With such a team, working from the molecular scale through to whole populations, our Centre continues to help inform policy and public practice at what is a critical time for our society and the planet.

Last updated: 7 September 2021

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