Environmental Research Projects

Our environmental research identifies populations at increased risk for asthma and finds potential targets for public health interventions.

Our Study Populations form the basis for our research below:

Air pollution

Outdoor air pollution is a modifiable environmental exposure that affects all sectors of society. It has been linked to numerous pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, including childhood asthma. While low-income and minority children are often disproportionately affected by this exposure, little research has been conducted studying the effects of air pollution on these populations.

The Burchard lab has collected air pollution exposure estimates, from birth to the day of recruitment, for five different traffic-related air pollutants. Our research has centered on understanding how air pollution influences lung health in minority children. We have found that early-life exposure to NO2, a traffic-related pollutant, increased the risk for developing childhood asthma later in life. We also found that recent exposure to particulate matter and SO2 was associated with poorer lung function in children with asthma. The effects we have described vary for different racial/ethnic minorities, suggesting that some groups may be more susceptible to the effects of air pollution than others.

Effects of tobacco smoke exposure

In the 50 years since the first Surgeon General’s report on the effects of cigarette smoking, much has been learned about the harmful effects of smoking, but important questions remain.

  • Among people with asthma, how much tobacco smoke exposure is too much?

    We found that even small amounts of secondhand smoke (SHS) exposure are associated with substantially more severe asthma exacerbations among children. Our results also suggest that a larger proportion of minority children are exposed to SHS than reported, which may help explain observed asthma disparities. Our next step is to examine in more detail the dose-response association between SHS exposure and asthma severity. Our research will support the development of public health policies and help develop targeted clinical interventions for vulnerable pediatric populations.
  • Why do the effects of maternal smoking during pregnancy persist into adulthood?

    We have shown that fetuses exposed to maternal tobacco smoke (in utero smoking) are more likely to have worse asthma as children and young adults. We believe that the effects of tobacco smoke exposure on asthma severity occur in part through DNA methylation: changes made to DNA that can affect gene expression and cell growth without affecting the underlying genetic code. Our next step is to determine whether DNA methylation mediates the effect of in utero smoking on asthma severity. Our analysis of DNA methylation will also help identify novel pharmacologic targets for preventive and therapeutic interventions to reduce disease burden and health disparities.