The University launched the Institute for Human Health and the Environment (IHHE) to support new research and solve local, regional and global health problems associated with how where we live, go to school and work influences our health. There is strong evidence that our geo-location plays a bigger factor in our quality of life, overall health, and longevity than our genetic code. Thus, the new institute will commit its resources in education, engagement, and research in order to study and help find solutions to prevent some of our major health issues, such as cancer, heart disease and neurological diseases.
How the environment plays a part in our health
Where we live around the world plays a huge part in how our quality of health will be. For instance, living in lower-income sectors in the United States means little to no grocery stores in the area (this phenomenon is known as food deserts) but surpluses of fast food chains or convenience stores, which often have no fresh foods. This phenomenon, coupled with poverty, leads many to have a diet composed of high sugar/sodium food and thus problems with heart disease run rampant in low-income households. Another example is more global: housing near certain factories, transportation hubs, or contaminated sites can contribute to respiratory health issues for the inhabitants. Every factor of our everyday life has some role on our health. This may sound bleak, but really it is good news because we can change the environment. IHEE’s goal is to help better identify, understand, and reduce the negative impacts of environment on health, and also to catalyze ways to promote the positive impacts of environment on health.
How the IHHE will attempt to solve these problems
The IHHE will integrate programs and initiatives across the University, which will be anchored on the three pillars of: research, career development and education, and engagement.
Through the pillar of research, the IHHE will foster a major hub for research that is not only innovative, but also inclusive. The research gathered will also be interdisciplinary—using a variety of social and scientific perspectives, as it requires many heads to solve pressing environmental issues.
Through the pillar of career development and education, the IHHE will enhance existing programs including the undergraduate major in Environmental Health and the graduate program of Toxicology as well as other programs like Epidemiology, Computational Biology, and Biostatistics. Furthermore, the institute will support programs for K-12 students in the Rochester Area. The IHHE will connect and fortify these fields and more to support a more inclusive, intersectional environment to “recruit and retain highly talented individuals”.
Through the pillar of engagement, the IHHE will foster community engagement and environmental justice activities that were started years ago, as part of the Environmental Health Science Center, and NIEHS-funded research core center of excellence here at UR. This continuation of engagement includes working with local community members to develop and implement community-based approaches to solve problems. An example of this is teams at the University have contributed to Rochester’s local lead poisoning prevention system, which has resulted in “lead poisoning rates declining 2.4 times faster than elsewhere in NY state”.
The IHHE and its pillars hope to continue the strong foundation that the university has had on environmental health and will expand its reach across not only UR campuses, but also across the city of Rochester. Their inclusive and interdisciplinary approach will make the IHHE a strong model for environmental health institutions and ways to solve the pressing problems of our world today.
Written by Lugardo Marroquin ‘24