March 23, 2015
Photo credit: Luther Caverly

Where You Live Could Determine How Healthy You Are

Air pollution and a lack of urban green space don’t just impact the environment – they can also pose serious health risks to Canadians.

Paul Villeneuve, an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences, has been studying the links between environmental and occupational exposures on Canadians’ health and says they affect people globally.

“Everyone is exposed to air pollution,” says Villeneuve. “(Studying this topic) is a chance to impact health policies at a local, national and international level.”

Trained in epidemiology – the science that studies the patterns, causes and effects of health and disease conditions in certain populations – Villeneuve started looking at the issue years ago when he was an undergraduate student.

“I was exposed to epidemiology at a young age, during my first year of undergraduate studies,” he says, adding that throughout his studies he researched electromagnetic fields and power lines, and how they relate to leukemia in children. “I became interested in the environment as a whole and occupational health, and when I came to Health Canada in Ottawa, I was able to develop research studies in the field of air pollution.”

At Carleton, Villeneuve is involved in many large-scale cohort studies that investigate the link between long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution and the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, and diabetes.

Using databases from Statistics Canada, Villeneuve and his colleagues are able to link that information to mortality and cancer registries across the country.

As part of his research, Villeneuve has found that there are associations between long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution and the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.

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They are also involved in similar studies in Ontario where they are able to link health care records. They can then map where people live, and use air pollution maps which they assign to these residents.

“We can look at whether there are differences in the development of cancer or diabetes, and where there’s higher air pollution and lower air pollution,” he says.

Villeneuve adds that he is currently working with colleagues at the University of Toronto, Health Canada, and Public Health Ontario to study Ontario residents who have diabetes, hypertension or a history of heart disease.

“We can find out where they live and their interactions with the health care system to see what health outcomes they have had,” he says. “We’re also able to follow them on the exposure side when it comes to air pollution, because we know exactly where they live.”

As part of his research, Villeneuve has found that there are associations between long-term exposure to outdoor air pollution and the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes.

He says that the maps used have satellite technology, where he and his colleagues can see that air pollution is common in urban areas – but there are also risks in mortality and health in areas between large cities or rural and urban areas.

“It highlights the fact that local sources of pollution, like traffic, have very important effects on the health of Canadians,” Villeneuve says.

Through more short-term studies, he says he has found that air pollution particularly impacts those who have existing respiratory problems, diabetes or those who have a heart condition.

Using satellite imaging similar to the air pollution maps, he has found that green spaces make a positive impact on people’s lives in urban areas – including lower mortality rates, improved sleep quality, increased exercise, and lower obesity rates

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“The day-to-day fluctuations in air pollution will affect them more than someone who is healthy,” he says.

Additionally, Villeneuve has looked at the impact of green space and how it relates to Canadians’ health.

Using satellite imaging similar to the air pollution maps, he has found that green spaces make a positive impact on people’s lives in urban areas – including lower mortality rates, improved sleep quality, increased exercise, and lower obesity rates.

“People have compared the physical benefits of exercise in green areas versus a non-green area, and they get more benefit out of doing exercise in the green area,” he says.

But there are many other benefits that Villeneuve has found with green space, he says.

“It helps absorb some of the air pollution and provide cooling and shade,” he says, adding that green space also affects emotional well-being. “There are a number of studies that have shown that being in a green space gives people tranquility and peace of mind, which has certain benefits.”

Occupational health has also been one of Villeneuve’s areas of research, which started about 20 years ago.

Villeneuve says one of the projects he felt most passionate about was in the early 1990s, when he was researching the effects of radon in Newfoundland miners.

“At the time they began the mine in the later 1920s, they didn’t know that radon caused lung cancer,” he says, adding that he completed an analysis on different miners and found their levels of radon was substantially higher than current occupational limits.

When the study is finished, it will provide the most comprehensive and accurate breakdown of cancer risk factors across the country

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Partnering with other universities and Health Canada, he is one of the researchers currently involved in a Canadian Cancer Society study which looks at various factors that impact cancer – including air quality, smoking, and radon in homes.

Villeneuve and colleagues from the University of Calgary, University of Toronto, Queen’s University and McGill will be studying how the environment impacts the number of cancer cases.

When the study is finished, it will provide the most comprehensive and accurate breakdown of cancer risk factors across the country. The information will be used as part of effective and targeted programs, as well as policies, to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

Down the road, Villeneuve says there are other types of pollutants in the air that researchers need to study a bit more – and, technology needs to catch up too.

“A lot more work needs to be done on the exposure side, and developing better maps,” he says.

He adds that Canada is a great country to study air pollution and its effects on health because air pollution levels are lower – but also because there is easy access to records and statistics.

“We’re one of the few places where we can go to a place like Statistics Canada and take these large surveys, and link them to mortality and cancer incidents,” he says. “They can’t do these studies in the United States as easily.”

He says his research in both air quality and urban green space are issues that affect people globally.

“These Canadian studies are getting fed into the Global Burden of Disease report (released by the World Health Organization), that sets priorities. People use these findings to set guidelines in the United States, and other countries around the world,” Villeneuve says.

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