As the University of Louisville prepared to roll out its Envirome Institute, Insider Louisville chatted with its director, Aruni Bhatnagar, about how the institute could improve the health of the community.
Following are edited excerpts of the conversation.
Q. Tell us about the Green Heart study.
A. “There is this idea that air pollution can cause heart disease and also diabetes. So we said how do we test this idea? There’s the other idea that people who live in greener neighborhoods are healthier, but again, what’s the evidence of that? What we are going to do is we go to a community … and then we do a baseline evaluation of heart disease in 700 people within that community.
Q. Do you mean a neighborhood? How will the study work?
A. Yes, this is a large area — about 22,000 people. … We are going to plant large trees – something like 50-foot, 40-foot trees – and about 10,000 of those trees within this neighborhood. And then we’ll see what happens to heart disease, what happens to levels of pollution in the neighborhood, what happens to interactions. … If you put trees outside and the streets are much more pleasant, do people walk more and then their diabetes is less? Do they have better social cohesion, neighbors interact with neighbors? … Just looking at trees can reduce stress for some people … Our main goal is to see if we put trees (in), would we reduce exposure from pollution from cars and roadways and so on.
Q. Is this the idea that trees are some sort of a pollution screener?
A. That’s the idea we’re testing. We did a pilot experiment at St. Margaret Mary, right across from Oxmoor Mall. We did a screen between the school and the roadway and we saw improvements in children’s health as well as a decrease in the level of air pollution.
Q. In the Green Heart study, what’s the control? You can put in the 10,000 trees, but how would you be able to tell cause and effect or can you not?
A. Only half the neighborhood will get the trees. The other half will not, so if we recruit 700 people and look at their blood vessel function, their age and … blood markers, half of them would be in the area where they’re (putting) trees and the other half not.
Q. Are you all looking for people to volunteer to do this? Do you already have the area picked out?
A. We have an area picked out, but we need people who live in that area to volunteer. This is (the) Wyandotte-Beechmont area between Churchill Downs and the airport. It’s a middle-income area. … The Watterson runs through the area and so that’s a source of pollution and so we thought (that) would be a good area to do the study.
Q. Will people have to come into a clinic to get all their biometrics done?
A. No, we are going out to the community (to several sites, such as churches and community centers). … We are going door to door, begging people to please come and join our study, and so if you can spread the word, that would be great.
(For more information about the study, go to https://GreenHeartLouStudy.com or call 502-852-4236.)
Q. Would you like to do more studies like this or is this a one-time thing?
A. This is going to take us about five years to do … We want to then develop this model — where the trees should be put in relation to air pollution, what density of trees has an impact on health.”
(The model could then) “be used in not only areas in Louisville but everywhere around the globe.
… In the Green Heart neighborhood, we are installing 400 monitors all around the neighborhood to get a very high-resolution map of air pollution in the area, and we’re also installing two weather stations.
Q. I understand that you have done some research in the past on e-cigarettes. Tell me more.
A. I’m also the director of the American Heart Association’s tobacco center, which is here at the University of Louisville. … I’m their go-to person/spokesperson for all tobacco-related issues. We do a lot of work about e-cigs, trying to figure out what toxins they contain and what type of health effects they might have.
Q. Will you be doing further research on that as part of the institute?
A. Yes, the American Heart Association center will be one of the centers within the Envirome Institute and we expect to keep doing that work.
Q. What do e-cigarettes have to do with the environment?
A. It is one of the determinants of health. The kind of environment we live in determines the type of addictions we get or the type of things that we get addicted to.
… Black neighborhoods and neighborhoods with minorities and Hispanics have more tobacco shops than white neighborhoods and … tobacco companies target minorities and poor people in particular.
(E-cigarette manufacturers) make them in candy flavors, they make them in fruit flavors and they want to keep them at the eye level of like kids in the store and want to sell them like candy, and we are very opposed to that. We want e-cigarettes to be behind the counter. … There is a lot of socio, economic, environmental factors to consider in such research as well.