Blog Global Health Center

Indoor air pollution: A reminder of public health’s interdisciplinary nature

Written by Natasha Zimmermann, BA candidate in Chemistry and Anthropology: Global Health and Environment at Washington University in St. Louis; and the Mark and Cathleen Reifsteck Research Scholar in the 2023 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

A neighborhood map of Lima, Peru, featuring Pampas de San Juan de Miraflores and Villa El Salvador, the two communities being considered in Underhill’s study

As part of the Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track, I am grateful to have attended a number of lectures on various topics within the sphere of public health. The lecture series has been one of my favorite aspects of this program. I have gained valuable exposure to important research and work in public health, touching on both subjects that I have already begun to explore and areas that are new to me. One lecture that really stood out to me as very thought-provoking was a presentation by Lindsay J. Underhill, MPH, PhD, that included highlights of her work in Lima, Peru exploring the association between household proximity to major roadways and indoor air pollution.

Underhill discussed her work in two side-by-side peri-urban communities in Lima, where she and her team assessed levels of particulate matter, black carbon, nitrogen dioxide, and various allergens in 25 homes. In the written report of her study, Underhill’s team found that while the assessed neighborhoods generally had similar indoor and outdoor concentrations of black carbon and particulate matter, homes near main roadways contained higher concentrations of pollutants. Underhill concluded that the pollutants assessed were drivers of indoor air quality in peri-urban communities, and also demonstrated that homes located near roadways had increased vulnerability to these pollutants.

Not only is Underhill’s work interesting in and of itself, but it is also emblematic of public health’s nature as a truly interdisciplinary field. Underhill’s study lies at the nexus between human health and our immediate surroundings, demonstrating that factors as fundamental as the air we breathe and how our communities are built have the potential to affect health. Furthermore, the authors of this study discuss how additional factors such as the variations in humidity and rainfall associated with changing seasons and the openness of home construction may have affected the connection between roadway proximity and indoor air pollution. Underhill’s results culminate in showing that elements pertaining to the climate, community and roadway layout, home infrastructure, diesel traffic exposure more likely hold influence over concentration of indoor pollutants in these peri-urban Peruvian communities, underscoring that protecting human health is not confined to any one field or discipline.

One of the reasons I am most drawn to the public health field is that it offers the opportunity to study how countless different factors converge to affect health, thereby necessitating continuous learning, creativity in problem-solving, and collaboration between contributors with a myriad of focus areas. This lens of analysis is something I have used in my classes at Washington University in St. Louis such as when I analyzed pesticide usage and its impacts on the human body in both my chemistry and anthropology courses. This type of analysis is something I am incredibly eager to continue to engage in throughout my career in public health.