Health and the Environment

SFR Contributions Recognize Emerging Connections

Humans and all other species rely on ecosystem processes and services for their very survival. Their health and well-being are inextricably bound up with the sustainability of air, water, and soil systems and the complex interactions within these systems of the species living among them. As new interdisciplinary initiatives are developed at universities across the world, a greater focus on these interactions is emerging.  A consideration of human health or well-being in the context of these interactions has characterized a number of SFR research and outreach projects over the years.  Examples include research on the spread and management of West Nile Virus, on how urban green spaces can affect human physical and mental health, and on interactions between HIV/AIDS and the environment.  They also include work on humanitarian projects with the UW student chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

West Nile Virus (WNV) research includes a survey of stormwater systems in Snohomish and King Counties to document the presence, abundance, and preferred breeding places of WNV mosquitoes.  The study, carried out by graduate student Sergio Camacho, will contribute to an understanding of where dangerous mosquitoes breed in highest numbers and where mosquito control efforts, including native predators as potential biological control agents, can be focused with increased efficacy.  Other WNV research is related to the infection of crows, jays, and urban songbirds by the virus. Since WNV severely impacts crows, they, along with other species may serve as sentinels for potential local infections of humans. To contribute to local and national efforts to better understand how WNV spreads and to develop methods to minimize its impacts on humans and wildlife alike, Professor John Marzluff and his graduate students have incorporated WNV into their long-term studies of urban crow and songbird populations in the Seattle area.

Research Scientist Kathy Wolf is building a program to better understand how to assign a dollar value to the health and well-being benefits of urban greenery. Her environmental psychology research program has included studies of urban trees and traffic safety; how
trees in a streetscape can benefit the business community; and trees, nature, and human physical activity. She says, "Parks, green spaces, and trees—while serving as the 'lungs of the city' and 'pollution scrubbers'—can also affect emotional health and improve
quality of life in ways that are sometimes little understood and often underestimated." The first phase of the research, nearly completed, is to collect and share nearly 40 years of research about green cities and good health. In follow up work, these benefits will be translated to economic value.

Professor Susan Bolton collaborated last year with the UW’s Departments of Global Health, Medicine, and Public Health on a study of HIV/AIDS and the environment focusing on Kenya and partnering with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, and the University of Nairobi. The study, a broad review of the published literature on potential links between HIV/AIDS and the environment that included field trips and extensive discussions with partners, assesses the evidence for these connections and provides guidance for possible next steps in addressing them. Bolton is also the faculty advisor for the UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders.  For an ongoing project in Bolivia, in a region with poor sanitation, scarce clean water, significant health problems, and difficult access to markets, Bolton and her student teams worked with villagers to improve indoor air quality and health by providing corrugated roofs and student-designed, well-ventilated cook stoves to more than 50 households. A project to stabilize seven miles of rugged, unpaved road provided better access to schools, markets, and health clinics for more than 5,000 people.

A new formal collaborative project between the Department of Global Health and the College of the Environment, funded by these units as well as the Schools of Law, Nursing, and Public Health and the Colleges of Built Environments and Engineering is examining adaptive solutions for human health and the environment in the face of climate change. A fellowship led by Professor Tom Hinckley and Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Science’s Richard Fenske is engaging 11 early-career faculty, including SFR’s Assistant Professor Soo-Hyung Kim and Associate Professor Josh Lawler, to focus on food and water security issues in Kenya, Indonesia, Peru, and the state of Washington.  Kim hopes to contribute a better understanding of the linkages among crop production, climate change, and human health; Lawler brings to the project a desire to find adaptive solutions to climate impacts that will provide both for healthy people and healthy ecosystems. The fellows presented their work to date at the recent Consortium of Universities on Global Health annual meeting at the UW.

Tom Hinckley, speaking at the meeting, underlined the fact that climate change has important effects on food and water supply, and thus human health.  “The world has been losing its glacial ‘bank account' of water supply at an unprecedented rate,” he said.  “It also appears that ongoing warming is adding more people to the ranks of the hungry. A stable climate is crucial to raising and maintaining the current level of food supply.” And, while some would argue that to fight hunger, all that is needed is to increase the research and food-production technology that led to the rise of industrial agriculture in the 20th century, Hinckley observed that “the green revolution was largely a result of bringing massive amounts of land under irrigation as well as the introduction of nitrogen inputs and new seed varieties.  It is not clear whether this can be replicated if the world keeps losing its water supply systems.“

“SFR’s academic niche at the UW—the study of human-influenced natural resource and environmental systems, focusing on principles and processes that explain the behavior and interaction of biotic and social systems along the urban to wildland gradient—is an incredibly robust framework from which to tackle challenges of health and the environment,” he adds.

Professor Susan Bolton in Yanayo, Bolivia on a UW Chapter of Engineers Without Borders project to improve indoor air quality, health, and road access to health clinics and markets.


Urban greenery can improve health and well-being. Research Scientist Kathy Wolf is researching how to assign a dollar value to these benefits.