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Clearing the air on pollution’s health effects

Policymakers often develop new environmental rules and regulations based on the recommendations of researchers whose expertise lie in the environmental health sciences.

Helen Suh, for example, a newly appointed associate professor of health sciences in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, is one of the researchers at the forefront of helping scientists and government officials understand air-pollution exposure and its impact on health.

“Many pollutants exist in the air at the same time, making it difficult to separate the health impacts of one pollutant from another,” said Suh, an expert in environmental exposure assessment and epidemiology. “To gather meaningful information for policymakers, we need new approaches to examine the individual and joint impacts of these pollutants simultaneously.”

To assist in this effort, Suh develops Geographic Information Systems-based models that can predict the concentration of air pollution in particular locations and at particular times. This research has been instrumental in linking specific pollutants to adverse health effects.

Suh’s work has extended beyond the walls of academia. She performs advisory work in environmental health for numerous local, national and international organizations. Suh is currently a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency charter Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Institute of Medicine’s Committee to Review the Health Effects in Vietnam Veterans of Exposure to Herbicides. She is also associate editor of the International Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.

“Decisions to regulate environmental pollutants require input from many scientific disciplines,” Suh said.

Not surprisingly, Suh noted that Northeastern’s commitment to fostering interdisciplinary research attracted her to the university. “Interdisciplinary research is critical to environmental health research and education,” she said. “So often departments and disciplines operate as silos. I like to build bridges between these silos, which for the environmental health field, involves diverse disciplines ranging from engineering to architecture to health sciences to biology. You need to assemble a whole community that can work together to solve these problems.”

Suh completed her undergraduate education at MIT and then received both a master’s and doctorate degree from the Harvard School of Public Health. She spent the last two decades teaching at Harvard.