As part of the University of Exeter Medical School’s research programme, the Centre is exploring the complexity of environment and human health issues in a truly interdisciplinary fashion. Our academics incorporate both qualitative and quantitative research methods and are using science, the arts and the humanities to improve our understanding of the health risks and opportunities presented by the environment. Collaborations with business, government and the third sector are at the heart of our work, ensuring tangible outcomes that will enhance the economy of Cornwall.
As populations age worldwide, our views of older people, and how we deal with this ageing demographic, will need to evolve. Our research is considering how physical activity and the environment can impact on ageing and perceptions of growing old, and how age related conditions such as sight loss can affect older people’s ability to stay fit and healthy.
A growing body of evidence suggests that time spent in or near natural water environments, such as the coast, rivers, lakes and inland waterways, can promote health and wellbeing. We are conducting a series of multi-method studies to investigate the psychological and physical health benefits of exposure to natural water environments, with researchers working on a number of laboratory and field based studies, as well as secondary data analyses.
Climate, Health and Wellbeing
Weather and climate can directly influence our health. We are investigating the impact climate and climate change may have on atopic illnesses. As patterns of disease change, drug treatments will alter too. We are considering the transport and fate of pharmaceuticals in the environment, and the ways in which they may vary in the future under pressures such as an ageing demographic.
Emerging Pollution Risk
Our research into the manmade pollution of the environment considers traditional contaminants such as pesticides, and newer substances such as pharmaceuticals. Along with environmental toxic exposures like radon and harmful algal bloom toxins, we are examining the way that pollution can impact on both the environment and health.
Sickness and absence from work can represent a significant cost to both individuals and their employers. In partnership with PenCLAHRC and working with Cornish businesses we are investigating the development of sustainable workplace health and wellbeing initiatives.
Microbial systems underpin life on earth. Bacteria drive bio-geochemical cycles in the environment including the carbon and nitrogen cycle, facilitate plant growth though mineralisation of organic matter and cause a wide range of infectious diseases. Human and veterinary use of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals affect these microbial systems and we are studying bacterial evolution in the lab to shed light on environmental mechanisms that can lead to antibiotic resistance.
Wellbeing & the Natural Environment
Evidence is emerging that all natural environments can improve physical and mental health. We are researching the therapeutic properties of these environments, assessing how they differ and how best to encourage access.
Environmental and Public Health Economics
Values of the environment and health impacts of pollution are increasingly being used in “getting the prices right” by business, government and the European Commission. Valuation methods from the field of economics are applied in arriving at values in money terms – and these can then be included in decision making tools such as cost-benefit analysis. Research at the Centre attempts to extend this application by valuing both positive and negative impacts of the environment. Our on-going research includes the valuation of ecosystem services in the Isles of Scilly, valuation of atmospheric services in the UK and valuing the impact of climate change.
Research on the effects of the environment on disease and wellbeing in populations is a key tool to understanding how we can gain benefits (and avoid negative effects) from exposure to environmental factors. By examining trends in a cross-section of a community, we can tease out subtle health effects that are not visible at a smaller scale. Our epidemiological research includes assessing the health outcomes from chronic low level exposure to man-made chemicals, exposure to naturally occurring chemical such as radon gas and algal toxins, and the effects of chronic weather or climatic events.
Geographic Information Systems
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help us to visualise and analyse geographically referenced data over a range of scales, from the very small to the very large. We use GIS to map exposures to environmental conditions (the distance from a home to the nearest green space or pollution source, for example) and combine this with other population characteristics to tease out relationships between health and the environment. Our studies use data that may come from large national and international surveys, or involve using data gathered from individuals using GPS and other data logging devices.
The formal definition for the term Horizon Scanning describes the systematic search for emerging issues and opportunities that might affect the probability of achieving management goals and objectives. Put more simply, one of the core goals of horizon scanning is to anticipate issues - accumulating data and knowledge about them that will allow us to make decisions to manage their development. At the European Centre we are using horizon scanning to identify developing areas that link with our research agenda, helping us to make informed choices about new areas that need investigation. For example, by using computer programmes to analyse new trends on the internet that link with the environment and health, we are being alerted to issues that are only now materialising.
Researchers at the Centre are investigating the relationships between humans and the microorganisms that survive and thrive in the human body. We are considering both the agents that can cause disease, and organisms that form an essential part of healthy immunity and digestion. We are also investigating the impact that microorganisms in the environment can have on human health.
Novel Communication Techniques
Our researchers produce a continual stream of new data that must be manipulated and translated in order to uncover relationships. Use of information graphics and visualisation can transform this data into a much more useful thing: information. Visual presentation is used across the research themes of the Centre, firstly for identifying trends and patterns in data, and secondly for presenting this information to the public and decision-makers. We focus on the use of info-graphics to explain the effects of climate change on health, as well as creating visuals that present complex numerical data.
The Centre is involved in policy research in the areas linking the environment and human health. A key area of expertise is policy research on adaptation to climate change from a health perspective. A broad approach is taken to include all relevant policy areas even where at first glance they might appear of limited relevance. Choices made in different policy areas will often have indirect and contradictory effects on human health and wellbeing. A key aim of our policy research is to identify and minimise or remove contradictions between policies with the ultimate aim of facilitating efficient adaptation to climate change and maximising health and wellbeing outcomes.
Qualitative Research Methods
Part of the Centre’s research programme explores how and why people give meaning to their experiences in the ways that they do, and what the social influences are that inform this process. To capture this information we use a host of qualitative research methods. These methods enable us to focus on the way people interpret and make sense of their experiences and the world in which they live. They involve ‘being’ with the person and the data that is collected tends to be non-numerical symbols, such as words and pictures. We’re applying these methods to find out how we can create the conditions for employees to engage in healthy workplace programmes, to learn more about how active ageing is perceived and experienced across the life course; and to gain an insight into older people's experiences of a changing climate.
Systematic Reviews and Evidence Synthesis
Conducting a systematic review allows a research group to identify all evidence that exists about a particular research question. This evidence is then synthesised using a range of techniques to help identify, amongst other factors, gaps and limitations in current knowledge. This approach is important because it minimises bias in, and maximizes transparency about, the identification, selection and analysis of research evidence. The review may be used to help define a research question (targeting areas that have not yet been explored) or to collate and re-analyse conclusions from other studies. Systematic reviews and evidence synthesis are applied across the full range of research themes and studies at the Centre.
The Centre employs experts from diverse disciplines: epidemiology, communication, policy analysis, systematic reviews, horizon scanning, health economics, biostatistics, qualitative methods, chemistry and microbiology. Each researcher specialises in a range of quantitative and qualitative research methods and together, forms a team that is encouraged to break from traditional silos.
We have two major research areas: emerging threats to health and wellbeing posed by the environment, and the health and wellbeing benefits the natural environment can provide. Within these overarching themes our researchers work on projects across several themes that deliberately cross disciplinary boundaries.