Public Release: 

Mailman School of Public Health researchers analyze air quality and weather changes by 2050

Increase in summer temperatures and ozone levels expected, with significant health effects

Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health

May 14, 2007 -- In a first of its kind study, a research team based at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health found that changes in urban sprawl and climate that are projected to occur in the New York City metropolitan area by the 2050s could significantly affect air quality and health in the region. Findings suggest that urban sprawl alone could result in a 1°F rise in average summer temperatures and a 16 percent increase in unhealthy levels of ozone during episodes.

This is the first successful attempt to simulate both weather and air quality due to climate and land use changes at a scale that is relevant to local and regional policy makers. Using a unique modeling system, the researchers were able to link climate change, land use change, and air quality, to predict sprawling development over this region in the year 2050 compared to present-day conditions. This new system makes it possible for the first time to examine the separate and joint influences of land use, climate and emissions changes on future environmental conditions - and resulting health implications such as asthma attacks and difficulty in breathing, ER visits and hospitalizations, and even increased risk of death for vulnerable persons.

With a population exceeding 21 million people in the greater NYC metropolitan area, ongoing urbanization puts a significant strain on natural resources and impacts air pollution levels and regional climate. The study highlights the value of modeling systems that quantitatively assess the potential impacts of changes in climate, emissions and land use on environmental health in the region.

"As more land in this region is expected to be converted to human-dominated uses over the coming decades, it is of critical importance to evaluate the potential effects on public health and welfare," says Patrick Kinney,ScD, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health and principal investigator of this project. "Furthermore, utilizing the system described here for sensitivity simulations even for relatively small areas may be of interest to planning organizations that focus on the state, county, or municipal level."

While this study was focused mainly on land-use change, earlier research by the team examined the potential impacts of climate change on air quality and heat across the metropolitan area, as well as potential effects on summertime ozone-related deaths. For example, ozone-related deaths in a typical summer could increase by 55 deaths across the 31 counties of the New York City Metro area due to climate change alone. County-specific increases ranged from zero to six deaths/summer, with the largest increases occurring in the New York City.

In a related study also just released, Dr. Kinney collaborated with other scientists, including Michelle Bell of Yale University, to extend his results to 50 large cities in the eastern U.S. They found that changes in ozone levels could detrimentally affect air quality and thereby harm human health through increases in total, cardiovascular, and respiratory mortality; hospital admissions for asthma; and hospital admissions for respiratory causes for older populations. The largest increases in ozone levels were predicted to occur in cities that already have high pollution levels, meaning that these locations may need to increase their emission control efforts to counteract any adverse impact of climate change on ozone concentrations. "These adverse health impacts highlight the need for diligence over policies that control greenhouse gas emissions and that improve regional air quality," said Dr. Kinney. "In addition to their effects on long-term climate change and health, such policies can lead to even short-term local benefits to air quality and thereby, human health."

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This work was supported in part by the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Science To Achieve Results (STAR) program. The full study findings are published in Atmospheric Environment, a publication of Reed Elsevier's ScienceDirect and available online at www.sciencedirect.com. (You can also access DOI.10.1007/s10584-006-9166-7 for related paper on climate impact, now available online.)

About the Mailman School of Public Health

The only accredited school of public health in New York City, and among the first in the nation, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health provides instruction and research opportunities to more than 950 graduate students in pursuit of masters and doctoral degrees. Its students and more than 300 multi-disciplinary faculty engage in research and service in the city, nation, and around the world, concentrating on biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health policy and management, population and family health, and sociomedical sciences. (www.mailman.hs.columbia.edu)

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