Uncovering the threat of environmental exposures on human health

Dr. Lina Mu. | Photo: Douglas Levere; University at Buffalo.

By Jessica Scates

Published May 20, 2020

At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in China, Dr. Lina Mu, Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health at University at Buffalo, sought to understand how the global crisis was affecting mental health. Using her network of partners, Dr. Mu quickly launched a survey to pin point different factors that seemed to be buffering mental health problems. In one short week, 3,200 people responded. 

“ Epidemiologists lead the science behind why we must wash our hands, wear facemasks, and stay at home. ”

The field of Epidemiology, the study of the distribution, determinants, and control of health-related states or events in specified populations, emerged on the global stage as COVID-19 began to affect the lives of nearly everyone on this planet. Epidemiologists lead the science behind why we must wash our hands, wear facemasks, and stay at home. Dr. Lina Mu has spent much of her career focused on the epidemiology of disease – however her work has largely focused on diseases caused by environmental exposures.

Dr. Mu completed her MD from Shanxi Medical University. While there, she took a course in epidemiology and became fascinated by the study and prevention of disease. Dr. Mu subsequently pursued a Master’s and PhD in Epidemiology and Health Statistics at Fudan University.

Dr. Mu began her early epidemiology research in a town in south China. A nearby-polluted lake, brimming with blue green algae, was producing a toxin in the water and causing many in the community to fall sick.

In collaboration with Dr. Zuofeng Zhang, a professor at UCLA, Dr. Mu and her team completed a case control study to explore how environmental exposures interact with genetic susceptibility to affect risk of cancer development. Her results showed that the polluted water was one of the common risk factors for all three cancers.

Later, after Dr. Mu accepted an assistant professor position at Fudan, she began research in her hometown, Taiyuan, a city with the highest level of air pollution in the world in 2003. Exposure to PM 2.5, or particulate matter that are 2.5 microns or less in width, causes both short-term and long-term health conditions including respiratory infections, asthma, heart disease, and cancer. They come from both indoor sources (e.g., burning wood and smoking) and outdoor sources (e.g., exhaust from vehicles and burning fuels). According to the WHO, seven million people die each year due to air pollution and nine out of ten people in the world breathe air containing high levels of pollutants. Many cities around the world measure pollution that is more than 20 times the WHO’s safe limit. Through a case control study, Dr. Mu measured indoor air pollution exposure among women – a  population that had a high lung cancer incidence but low smoking rate. Her results suggested that environmental exposure to indoor air pollution could contribute to lung cancer development.

From understanding air pollution’s effect on chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease to enhancing personal exposure assessment capacities using self-tracking devices, Dr. Mu has continued to further the field of research into environmental exposures. Her more recent work focuses on the mechanisms between air pollution exposure and outcomes using measures like oxidative stress, systemic inflammation, and metabolomics, the large-scale study of small molecules in your body.

Dr. Mu’s commitment to creating healthy communities now focuses on revealing how air pollution can impact maternal health, pregnancy, birth outcomes, and childhood development. Locally her work with the Upstate KIDS study tracks the growth, motor, and social development of children born from 57 counties in New York State. Dr. Mu also leads a team in analyzing WNY birth records for exposures and birth outcomes and is collaborating with colleagues from the autism center in Women and Children Hospitals looking at early life exposure and autism. Finally, Dr. Mu continues work funded by the Community for Global Health Equity that measures air pollution exposures and adverse birth outcomes and maternal health in Beijing, China.