Global Public Health Research
Faculty in the Global Public Health and the Common Good are committed to advancing research in a diverse range of fields. Students are invited to participate in this research and to become involved in projects of significant importance to modern societies.
Areas of major research interest within the program are:
- The spread of pandemics,
- Nutrition and health.
- Health impacts of pollution and climate change, and
- The ethical and legal foundations of public health
Learn about Air Quality Index in Massachusetts
Boston College established the Global Observatory on Planetary Health in 2018 to track the impacts of pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss on human health and to develop science-based solutions for protecting the earth’s environment, preventing disease, saving lives and advancing social justice. Researchers in the Observatory are currently examining the impacts of pollution and climate change on children’s health, heart disease, cancer, and ocean health; studying the health hazards of plastics across their entire life cycle; and developing options for reform of national and international chemical policy. The Observatory is an interdisciplinary collaboration whose members are drawn from schools and departments across Boston College.
The work of the Global Observatory on Planetary Health is inspired and guided by Pope Francis’ teaching in his encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, calling on all of us to care for our planet - our Common Home, end social and economic injustice, and prevent the disease, disability and premature death that fall disproportionately upon the poor.
The Observatory is deeply committed to communication. We develop carefully curated science-driven, impactful reports and recommendations to guide leaders of governments, inform the media and the public, and assist cities and countries to prevent pollution, mitigate climate change, improve health and advance the common good. Recent reports have examined Air Pollution in India; Pollution and Economic Development in Africa; The Human Health Benefits of Climate Mitigation, Pollution Prevention, and Preservation of Biological Diversity; and Human Health and Ocean Pollution. We also produce editorials and commentaries that have appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet, The Boston Globe and The New York Times. These reports are already influencing health, energy and environment policy within countries and internationally.
The Observatory continues the work of the Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, co-led by Observatory Director Dr. Philip Landrigan. The Lancet Commission found that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths each year. It reported additionally that pollution can be prevented and that pollution prevention safeguards health, saves lives, slows the pace of climate change and preserves biological diversity.
To advance its work, the Observatory has established formal partnerships with UN Environment and the Centre Scientifique de Monaco. Its work is supported by UN Environment, the Minderoo Foundation, the Centre Scientifique de Monaco, the Barr Foundation, the Owsley Brown II Family Foundation and the A-Team Foundation.
In all of its work, the Observatory trains and mentors post-doctoral fellows, undergraduate and graduate students and thus builds capacity in planetary health for future generations.
AIR POLLUTION IN MASSACHUSETTS
Air pollution is a silent killer in Massachusetts, responsible for an estimated 2,780 premature deaths each year and for the loss of over 2 million IQ points in children according to researchers in the Global Observatory on Planetary Health. To guide statewide and local actions to control air pollution and prevent disease, we conducted the first ever study of air pollution’s health impacts in each city and town across the state.
“We are talking about the impacts of air pollution at a very local level in Massachusetts – not just statewide,” said lead author Boston College Professor of Biology Philip J. Landrigan, MD, director of the Observatory. “This report gives the people in every city and town the opportunity to see for themselves the quality of the air they and their families are breathing and the dangerous health implications for both adults and children as a consequence of air pollution.” Review the full study by Landrigan, P.J., Fisher, S., Kenny, M.E. et al. titled "A replicable strategy for mapping air pollution’s community-level health impacts and catalyzing prevention" in Environmental Health. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12940-022-00879-3.
A web-based application was also developed by the Observatory and offers a searchable database for air pollution impacts in each of the state’s 351 cities and towns. Check it out here www.bc.edu/masscleanair.
Impacts on Human Health, the Economy and Human Capital
Air pollution in India is a major cause of disease, death, and shortened life expectancy. It was responsible in 2017 for an estimated 1.24 million premature deaths. Air pollution in India also causes great economic losses and it impairs children’s health and reduces their intelligence thus diminishing India’s human capital and potential for future development.
The goal of this multinational, multi-institutional study was to bring together the most recent information on the disease burden, economic costs and human capital losses attributable to air pollution in India in order to guide pollution prevention nationally and in each of India’s states.
The study was launched at Boston College in October 2018. A major working meeting of the Study Team and Study Advisory Group was held in New Delhi, India on July 17-18, 2019. The study was published in The Lancet Planetary Health in December 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30298-9
This study received support from UN Environment.
Ocean pollution is a critically important, but insufficiently recognized and inadequately controlled component of global pollution. Its major drivers are fossil fuel combustion, reckless increases in the production of plastics and chemicals, and runaway coastal development. Its impacts are magnified by climate change, sea surface warming and ocean acidification. It destroys marine ecosystems, impedes the production of oxygen, and threatens human health.
The impacts of ocean pollution fall disproportionately on people in small island nations, indigenous communities, coastal communities in the Global South, and fishing communities worldwide. These are populations that create only miniscule amounts of pollution. Most of the pollution to which they are exposed arises from sources far away - environmental injustice on a global scale.
Ocean pollution, like all forms of pollution can be controlled and prevented. Land-based sources are responsible for 80% of ocean pollution, and control of releases from these sources is therefore key. Prevention of ocean pollution is highly cost-effective. It boosts economies, increases tourism, helps restore fisheries, advances the Sustainable Development Goals, slows climate change, and improves human health. These benefits will last for centuries.
The goals of our study of Human Health and Ocean Pollution are to: (1) broadly examine the known and potential impacts of ocean pollution on human health; (2) inform policy makers, government leaders, international organizations, civil society, and the global public of these threats; and (3) catalyze interventions to control and prevent pollution of the seas and safeguard human health.
Air pollution was responsible for 1.1 million deaths across Africa in 2019, and ambient air pollution is rapidly worsening. In the absence of deliberate intervention, ambient air pollution will increase disease and death, diminish economic productivity, reduce children’s intelligence, and undercut economic development. Because most African countries are still early in development, they can invest in renewable energy, avoid pollution caused by fossil fuels, save lives, and safely grow their economies.
Furthermore, air pollution is costing African countries billions in gross domestic product and can be correlated to a devastating loss in the intellectual development of Africa’s children, the researchers found. In the first continent-wide examination of the far-reaching impacts of air pollution in Africa, the international team found that while deaths from household air pollution have declined slightly, deaths caused by outdoor, or ambient, air pollution are on the rise, said Boston College Professor of Biology Philip Landrigan, MD, who led the project with United Nations Environment Programme Chief Environmental Economist Pushpam Kumar.
The study aims to quantify how air pollution is affecting health, human capital, and the economy across Africa, with a particular focus on Ethiopia, Ghana, and Rwanda.
Fisher S, Bellinger DC, Cropper ML, Kumar P, Binagwaho A, Koudenoukpo JB, Park Y, Taghian G, Landrigan PJ. Air Pollution and Development in Africa: Impacts on Health, the Economy and Human Capital. Lancet Planetary Health, 2021; 5: e681–88 doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00201-1
Rajagopalan S, Landrigan PJ. Pollution and the heart. New England Journal of Medicine, 2021 11;385 (20):1881-1892. doi: 10.1056/NEJMra2030281.
Landrigan PJ, Bernstein A. Epidemiology, Economics and the Path to Clean Energy. (Invited editorial) International J Epidemiology 2020. 49: 1896–1898, doi: 10.1093/ije/dyaa224
Landrigan PJ. The health and economic benefits of climate mitigation and pollution control. Lancet Planet Health. 2018 Mar; 2 (3):e107-e108. doi: 10.1016/S2542-5196(18)30008-1.
Shaffer RM, Sellers SP, Baker MG, Kalman Rd B, Frostad J, Suter MK, Anenberg SC, BalbusJ, Bellinger DC, Birnbaum L, Brauer M, Cohen A, Ebi KL, Fuller R, Grandjean P, Hess JJ, Landrigan PJ, Lanphear B, London SJ, Rooney AA, Stanaway JD Trasande L, Walker K, Hu H. Improving and Expanding Estimates of the Global Burden of Disease due to Environmental Health Risk Factors. Environ Health Perspect 2019 doi.org/10.1289/ehp5496
Landrigan PJ, Bellinger DC. It’s time to end lead poisoning in America. JAMA Pediatrics, September 27, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.3525
McGlade J, Landrigan PJ. Why Ocean Pollution is a Clear Danger to Human Health. The Conversation UK, February 1, 2021. https://theconversation.com/why-ocean-pollution-is-a-clear-danger-to-human-health-152641