UCI News

UCI Public Health adds the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory as key research center

Interdisciplinary research scope expanded to cover a wide range of environmental exposures

October 19, 2021
UCI Public Health adds the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory as key research center
Robert Phalen (left), Michael T. Kleinman (right) Program in Public Health / UCI

Irvine, Calif., Oct. 19, 2021 – The University of California, Irvine Program in Public Health has added the Air Pollution Health Effects Laboratory as a research center for the study of airborne environmental and occupational exposures. Originally created in 1973 with funding from the California Air Resources Board to understand the effects of air pollution on human health, over the years the lab has expanded its reach to cover a wide range of environmental exposures. Topics of study now include the impact of air chemistry, tobacco and incense products, in-vehicle and indoor air contaminants, and the effects of inhaled materials on lung development.

APHEL will continue to be co-directed by professors Michael T. Kleinman, Ph.D., and Robert F. Phalen, Ph.D., who both hold faculty appointments with UCI Public Health’s Department of Environmental & Occupational Health. Kleinman’s research focuses on understanding the role of inhaled contaminants including cigarette smoke, wildfire smoke, ‘vaping’ and ambient particles on the development of cardiovascular disease while Phalen, who has a joint appointment with the UCI School of Medicine, has extensive experience in inhalation exposure studies, toxicology, pulmonary anatomy and bioterror aerosols.

“We’ve seen incredible advancements in environmental health sciences over the past few decades that have led us to this moment,” Phalen said. “And we’ve long understood the urgent need for more research in anticipated future air pollution. UCI has a 45-year-old history of expertise in exposure sciences, which we’re thrilled to expand with the launch of our lab as a designated research center.”

Kleinman noted, “APHEL will have three core functions: basic research, applied research and training. And all three require expertise that is augmented across disciplines. We look forward to collaborating with partners across campus to advance the field, respond to environmental threats as they arise, and train the next generation of scientists.”

For the past 48 years, APHEL has operated under the umbrella of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, which is now also in the Program in Public Health. As a new research center, APHEL will continue its long history of synergistic collaborations with COEH faculty, but with a focus on serving as a core facility across campus for inhalation studies. The recent recruitment of COEH faculty member Andrea de Vizcaya Ruiz, Ph.D. from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico, highlights the future growth of APHEL. de Vizcaya Ruiz has an established research program investigating the toxicity of inhaled engineered nanoparticles, a new area of study for APHEL.

APHEL will advance UCI Public Health’s mission to promote evidence-based science and health equity by driving key interventions in environmental justice. A driving force behind the center’s work is an understanding that marginalized communities – especially communities of color – are subject to disproportionately higher levels of air pollution and are thus at greater risk of poor health outcomes. The data generated by the center will have a major effect on populations living near pollution sources by helping convince legislators that environmental justice is an urgent public health issue that must be tackled.

“The establishment of the center represents a critical step toward achieving health equity in our local communities,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, director and founding dean of the UCI Program in Public Health. “Working directly with communities will enable us to develop the kinds of understandings that truly move the needle in mitigating environmental health effects in vulnerable populations.”

Kleinman and Phalen share a bold vision for APHEL’s future and one that will extend their work to new areas of study including radioactivity, nanotechnology, modeling and the link between climate change and pandemics. Plans are already underway for APHEL’s fourth international conference, which will convene physicians, veterans, engineers, chemists and regulators to discuss an array of topics related to APHEL’s mission.

“Actions sometimes have unintended outcomes, and our research will play a critical role in helping regulators avoid the effects of unexpected consequences,” Kleinman explained.

“In today’s society, we tend to innovate and charge ahead without first asking the important question, ‘is it safe?” Phelan said. “Our goal is to be proactive instead of reactive. Our work will provide regulators with the data they need to make informed decisions about hazard control. If you understand the future, you can change it.”

About the Program in Public Health and future School of Population and Public Health: UCI Public Health is dedicated to the achievement of health equity for all populations through teaching, research, service, and public health practice locally and globally. Championing the principles of evidence-based public health science, the program aspires to understand and impact population level social, biological, and environmental determinants of health and well-being. Drawing from the diverse expertise of its faculty, it aims to educate the future workforce of California and beyond through exceptional programs and experiential learning opportunities.

About the UCI’s Brilliant Future campaign: Publicly launched on October 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The planned School in Population and Public Health plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/school-of-population-and-public-health/.

About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities and is ranked among the nation’s top 10 public universities by U.S. News & World Report. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 224 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $7 billion annually to the local economy and $8 billion statewide. For more on UCI, visit www.uci.edu.

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