Illuminating the Exposome

Faculty members Janet Yang (communications), Sharmistha Baghchi-Sen (geography), and Kasia Kordas (epidemiology) at the Air Quality Ideas Lab.

Faculty members Janet Yang (communications), Sharmistha Baghchi-Sen (geography), and Kasia Kordas (epidemiology) at the Air Quality Ideas Lab

The leading environmental health hazard is air pollution. While this and other toxins in food and the environment have proven especially threatening in the first 1,000 days of life, little is known about the cumulative, life-course effects on physical and mental health. To illuminate the “exposome” – the totality of cultural, nutritional, and environmental exposures – we investigate intersections between biomarkers and geo-markers, daily routines and family histories, prenatal care and life-long habits.

What is Special About Early Life?

Children are very vulnerable during their first 1,000 days of life.  In the womb, embryonic or fetal tissue is highly sensitive and organs are developing. After birth, a young child goes through rapid growth and development with changes in organ system functioning, metabolic capacities, physical size, and immature defense systems. It is during this time period that they are particularly vulnerable to environmental exposure.

What is the Exposome?

The exposome is the sum exposure, the totality of environmental exposures from conception onwards. The exposome includes exposure to air pollution, water pollution, metal pollution, the social environment, life style factors, and others. The totality of these exposures at a young age can affect fetus growth, birth outcomes, child development and child health. 

For example, 3 billion people use solid fuels everyday, exposing women and young children to high levels of indoor air pollution. The World Health Organization estimates that people most likely to breathe poor-quality air live in low- and middle-income countries, where they may also experience hunger, malnutrition, infectious disease, conflict, and natural disasters. In many of these areas, the problem of air pollution is intractable, even as consequences for young children and other vulnerable groups are acknowledged.  

Poor air quality has detrimental effects on fetal and postnatal growth and development. Despite decades of efforts to improve air quality, pregnant women and young children around the world still breathe polluted air, initiating lifelong health problems and causing early death. For many, inadequate air quality is inescapable, with exposure occurring consistently during everyday indoor and outdoor tasks.

Portrait of Gauri Desai.

Meet Gauri Desai: Recent Doctoral Graduate and CGHE Alumna who recently won the Saxon Graham Dissertation Award

Our Working Solutions

Air Quality Ideas Lab.
Identifying Needs Testing Options Scaling Up
  • Salud Ambiental Montevideo
    Childhood exposure to metals, pesticides and other neurotoxins can result in irreversible neuropsychological impairments. Whereas metal exposures have declined in the general U.S. population and significant progress has been made in the reduction of certain metals in the environment, other environmental exposures, like pesticides and air pollution, are continuing to be a problem. These exposures often occur in the context of low family resources, poor nutrition, or unsafe neighborhoods.
  • Mycotoxin Exposure, Child Stunting and Birth Outcomes: Future Directions for the SHINE Trial
    Low height-for-age, or stunting, is a major contributor to childhood mortality globally and is often used as a marker of malnutrition in children. Stunting is most likely to occur in the first 24 months of life, and is characterized by a child having a length-for-age z-score (LAZ), or height-for-age z-score (HAZ), below two standard deviations. Stunted children are more likely to have cognitive delays, face higher rates of mortality, and can have decreased economic productivity in adulthood. Compounding on this, children are at increased risk of stunting if their parents were stunted as children themselves, establishing an intergenerational cycle of decreased economic productivity and increased mortality. Rural regions in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia especially suffer from a high prevalence of stunting in children under the age of 5. 
  • Characterizing the Environmental Burden of E-waste Recycling/Repair Workers in Bangladesh
    Electronic waste (e-waste) is a rising global environmental and health inequity issue for a number of reasons. Among them, it generates hundreds of contaminants, such as heavy metals, flame retardants, and other volatile organic compounds, to which both workers and their families are exposed. 
  • Health Impacts of Air Pollution Exposure During Pregnancy
    Air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. WHO reports that air pollution exposure caused deaths of 7 million people 2012, or one in eight of total global deaths. Deaths among pregnant women, children and adolescents account for more than one third of the global burden of premature mortality. Children in developing countries are eight times more likely to die before they reach the age of five. Air pollution exposure causes health impacts that significantly differ across different population groups, among which pregnant women and infant might be the most vulnerable population.  

Our Team

Our work is done in collaboration with many talented community partners. We list these partners on the affiliated project pages.