Policymaker Gets a Quick Lesson on the Harms of Air Pollution

September 19, 2022

At the end of the day, public health scientists conduct research to improve the health and wellbeing of people at scale. But translating research to policy change means scientists have to share their findings with legislators. So how do they do that? One obvious way: invite them to visit!

Last week, Nina Norwood, a representative of Congressman Adriano Espaillat, was on the Columbia University Irving Medical Center campus to learn from our scientists about the links between air pollution and neurodevelopmental problems. The presentation was organized by Paige Greenwood, a post-doctoral research fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia Psychiatry and an Early Career Policy Ambassador with the Society for Neuroscience. Greenwood is in touch with other policymakers about future tours.

The Congressional staffer was briefed by a multidisciplinary team of scientists, starting with Julie Herbstman, Columbia Mailman School professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH). Paige Greenwood and Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and New York State Psychiatric Institute, made introductory remarks.

In her presentation, Herbstman introduced CCCEH’s longitudinal studies of pregnant people and their children in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx—studies conducted in collaboration with local community groups. Over the last 25 years, this body of research has uncovered links between exposure to air pollution and other chemicals and low birth weight, childhood asthma, obesity, and neurodevelopmental problems—including lower IQs. While a ten-point IQ loss might not make a meaningful difference in the life of any one individual, the consequences for an entire community can be profound. “When you shift the whole distribution down, you end up with fewer gifted kids, and more challenged kids,” Herbstman explained.

Amy Margolis, assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia Psychiatry, presented her research on the same CCCEH cohort, which found links between high levels of air pollution exposure and a child’s difficulty regulating thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Another study found a connection between air pollution and difficulties with reading and math. Ongoing studies are using MRIs to understand the specific areas of the brain involved in these deficits.

Steve Chillrud, a scientist at Columbia’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and longtime CCCEH collaborator, presented his research in Ghana on approaches to reduce exposure to air pollution created by cookstoves. Going forward, researchers will use MRIs to study the brains of children exposed to air pollution. Paige Greenwood presented her work to adapt a play tunnel as a low-cost method to teach children to be still for the MRI.

Alex Dranovsky, a Columbia psychiatrist and neuroscientist, presented his research using mice to understand how stress affects memory circuitry in the brain after exposure to stress. Affected areas of the brain matched those found in Margolis’s study of children with developmental problems. Dranovsky said the ultimate goal is to develop a drug therapy.

At the same time, researchers seek to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution and other chemicals, so as to lower their risk of these development problems. “We need both treatment and prevention,” said Herbstman.

Congressional staffer Nina Norwood said Congressman Espaillat was serious about climate change and reducing air pollution, such as through his efforts to green the MTAs bus fleet. “I'm very excited to learn more about your research and how our office can be effective in helping you,” she said. “[Your research] can be a tool that can save a lot of lives.”