Observatory on Public Health Begins First Project

Boston College’s Global Observatory on Public Health has begun its first project, which will focus on the burden of disease caused by air pollution in India and will be completed in conjunction with 20-25 other scientists from around the world.

The project is led by Philip J. Landrigan, biology professor, director of the observatory, and leader of BC’s Global Public Health Initiative.

These leading scientists met at BC in Waul House to create a plan for how they would execute the project. Senior Indian scientists made the trip to Chestnut Hill, and Landrigan believes that a meeting could be held in India in the future, if funding allows.

“The partnership that is making this possible is a partnership between BC and the U.N. Environment Programme,” Landrigan said. “They were the ones who encouraged us to do the study, and they provided some funding to support the meeting we had in October.”

The project will investigate three main concepts relating to air pollution. The first is the burden of disease, or the number of cases of disease and premature deaths due to air pollution. The second is direct costs of air pollution, which correspond to the health care costs of the people who get sick and the productivity that is lost on account of sickness and death. The final concept they will investigate is loss of human capital, which deals with the effect of pollution on society and how it influences humans’ ability to achieve their full potential.

“Toxic chemicals that are in the air, which are inhaled by a woman when she is pregnant, go into her bloodstream, and then go right into the baby,” Landrigan said. “They can damage the baby’s brain. … Babies that were exposed in the womb to air pollution today have lower IQs than other children from the same background that grew up in different neighborhoods.”

At the meeting in October, the scientists divided up the writing among different teams. One group will be researching and writing about the burden of disease, another group will be working on the economic effects, while the third group will handle the human capital calculations, and the fourth group will be planning solutions and policy changes.

India was selected as the country for the observatory’s first project because it has the largest number of deaths due to air pollution per year worldwide. Landrigan hopes that the report will influence not only lawmakers at India’s national level, but also local government officials in India’s states.

The World Health Organization has international standards for air pollution, but 90 percent of cities in India have pollution levels that exceed them.

The observatory would like to complete its report by Sept. 1, 2019, so that it can present a document to the U.N. General Assembly when it meets a couple weeks later in that month.

“We’ve got to work hard to get it right,” Landrigan said. “The hope is twofold: that we do a good project and that it makes an impact in terms of changing policy.”

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