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30 years of impact in a changing world: The Environmental Research Group

2023 marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of Imperial College London’s Environmental Research Group (ERG). In this in-depth interview, Professor Frank Kelly – Battcock Chair in Community Health and Policy and Director of the Environmental Research Group – looks back at some of the ERG’s major achievements in air pollution research over the past three decades, and discusses the ongoing influence of climate change on air and water quality and public health. Finally, he shares his expert view on the key challenges and collaborative opportunities ahead for the ERG, Imperial College London, and the wider environment and health community to deliver positive impacts in this urgent area of research.

Q: Can you tell us about the work of the ERG and the aims of the research group?

A: The right to clean air is a fundamental human right. Unfortunately, here in the UK, many urban areas don’t have good air quality. The Environmental Research Group, or ERG, was established to remedy this situation through the provision of accurate information on the air quality in London and beyond, to examine what the consequences are of that poor air quality on health and, in due course, to explore what the solutions are to this terrible problem.

Q:  When you set up the group, what was the core research focus that the group was looking at? And how was that focus evolved and expanded over the years?

A: When we were established in 1993, our mission was to undertake air quality measurement and research, which was really fundamental to understanding the issue of the impact of air pollution on people’s health, and what the solutions are to that. When we started, we were quite small, with just three teams, a measurement team, a modelling team, and a toxicology team, totalling around 20 people. We now have eight teams, and nearly 100 people. Over the years, we’ve taken on new challenges, which have really become more important as we’ve moved from just considering air pollution, to exposures in other situations, such as on our transport systems, on our trains and our buses, and on the London Underground. So, the questions that really need to be answered have evolved and, hence, we’re still going strong. Collectively, we have come a long way in the last 30 years.

Q: What are some of the group’s key projects right now?

A: We’re currently working on a number of exciting projects. Having moved forward the understanding about tailpipe emissions from vehicles and their impacts on health, we have started to consider other emissions from vehicles, which you might not normally think about. We call these non-tailpipe emissions, typically coming from the tyres which, in a modern vehicle, are more than 55% plastic. We’re now very interested in the possible health effects of microplastics, because these are small enough to enter our lungs.

Another interesting project is moving beyond outdoor pollution to considering pollution indoors – inside our homes. We have a particular interest in the impact of indoor air pollution on asthma symptoms in children. Here at White City, we’ve established a cohort study involving 100 homes in which we’ve placed air quality monitoring devices in the kitchen, in the living area, and in the bedroom of the child. These instruments will be there for one month, during the autumn and winter season, and one month during the spring/summer season. From the information we’re gaining, we’ll have a much better understanding of the different sources of air pollution in homes, and, hopefully, which pollutants are particularly bad for exacerbating the symptoms of an asthmatic child. This project is called WellHome.

Q: How important is science and technology innovation in tackling our biggest environmental health challenges? Where do you think the core innovation needs to come from?

A: Innovation is really important. If we start with technological innovations – simple things such as replacing gas hobs in our kitchens with induction hobs – you gain a clear air quality benefit inside homes with this kind of technological advancement. Another example that I think is very good is the cyclone technology that Dyson has developed for their cleaning devices, which delivers a really efficient solution for air pollution solutions such as extractor fans, within a much more smaller size instrument.

In terms of scientific advances, 20-30 years ago we didn’t have a very good understanding of how small amounts of air pollution can affect our health over a long period of time. Now, through innovative human challenge studies that have been carried out, we know a lot more about the inflammation which occurs in our lungs when pollution enters our airways. We also know how that then subsequently affects our blood vessels, and its association with diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.

Q: What role does your group play in bringing together academia, industry and government to explore solutions and strategies?

A: Cross-disciplinary collaboration, and keeping those lines of communication open, is vital. Academia and science are able to establish what the problem is – such as the link between poor air quality and poor health – and the government, both national and local, is there to decide if those adverse outcomes can be controlled or improved through policy advances.  Industry, of course, then plays a role in moving forward with the technological advances to deliver the solutions. A good example of that is the tailpipe technology which has been introduced over the last 20 years, such as diesel filters on our exhaust systems.

Q: What advantages is the ERG gaining from its location in White City Innovation District?

A: I think there are great benefits to being located here in White City Innovation District. The first thing is the buzz about the place, which is very noticeable. It’s very different from being on a normal university campus – here we have start-up companies and academics co-located and bringing together research with a direct purpose. The enthusiasm of the students also really contributes to the buzz, and I think that’s enormously exciting.

Another advantage is the facilities – places such as the Hackspace, and the Invention Rooms – which are very active in trying to make things better for everyone in the broader community. Finally, the fact that the campus and the Innovation District is part of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is key. I think we have a council which is very forward-thinking and very enthusiastic about using the skills and the innovation which can come out of a district like this, to better the lives and the well-being of the residents.

Q: Within the Imperial College London ecosystem, what projects are you working on collaboratively?

A: Here at Imperial College White City, we’re working with a student initiative called The Tyre Collective. This group became really interested in tyre emissions, and wanted to come up with a solution. They’ve been very innovative and have developed a working model but, of course, they need to be able to show the data that will convince investors to keep supporting their research. So, the ERG has been able to help them by introducing our highly accurate measurement equipment into their experiments. It’s a really exciting project, and it’s great to see their enthusiasm for trying to solve the tyre pollution problem.

Another example here at White City is our work with the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI). There is currently a lot of interest in a recent government report from the committee on the medical effects of air pollution, which links exposure to air pollution over a long time to the increased development and risk of development of neurological problems, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Here at White City, we have a team (the UK DRI Care Research & Technology Centre) that’s already working with dementia patients to bring in innovations that will allow them to stay in their home safely for longer, rather than having to be hospitalised or placed in social care.  Again, we’ve been able to introduce our data quality aspect to their work and, in due course, we’ll hopefully be able to show that there may be certain sources of air pollution in the home which are playing negatively in respect of the development and the extension of this condition.

Q: What do you think has been the biggest impact of your group during the last 30 years?

A: I think, collectively, it’s our engagement with the Greater London Authority (GLA), Transport for London, and the Mayor’s office. Our collective interactions with those three entities over time has led to us being able to make it clear to them what the magnitude of the challenge is in respect of air pollution in London and then, ultimately, working with them to identify the solutions. We have real examples of the achievement working, from the 2003 introduction of the Congestion Charging Scheme in London in 2000, to the introduction of the Low Emission Zone and in 2019, the introduction of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone. 

Through our air quality modelling capabilities, the GLA and Transport for London (TfL) were able to undertake exercises on paper – without spending a penny – before they introduced these schemes. So when they were introduced, there was confidence that they would successfully lead to declines in emissions and improvements in air quality. That’s been a real partnership, I think.

Q: What are the opportunities for people to become involved with your group, in terms of studying with you, research and jobs?

A:  We take on a number of MSc students from Imperial to conduct short, three-month projects, plus PhD students who study intensely with us for three to four years. Through the Invention Rooms, we have also been able to start working with the local community, both with junior schools and secondary schools, to bring in students and introduce them to the challenges of issues like air pollution and what it’s doing to their health, and help them to decide whether this is a topic that they’re interested in exploring. If they are, then there are opportunities to join in some of our data collection schemes at a number of levels. In our most recent study, WellHome, we have appointed 10 ambassadors from the local community, representing different ethnic groups and interests. These people are really enthusiastic about learning all about this area, and then disseminating that information to their neighbours and friends in the community, which is fantastic.

Q: Can you tell us about your work in the area of water pollution?

A: The Environmental Research Group has focused primarily on air pollution over its lifespan, but we have recently become very adept in analysing water pollution as well. Our current research focus is looking at ways to measure water pollution, and exploring solutions to minimise it.

Within our team, we are lucky to have very talented scientists who have developed the methodology to take just a simple water sample from a river or from a waste water treatment plant and be able to measure 1000s of different chemicals within these samples. This has really developed a whole new area of science and activity, including deciphering which of these chemicals are important in terms of their impact on our own health and the health of the river itself and the creatures that inhabit it.

The health of UK rivers is a major concern at the moment, and we’re at a really exciting stage of identifying these chemicals and looking at which ones are potentially working together in a negative way. As a society, we are using more and more chemicals every year, and we often don’t understand what the consequences could be from using them or their derivatives. So this is an exciting but challenging new area for us, and it’s going to very important that we progress this over the next few years.

Q: Do you think that this sort of highly accurate technology you’re developing will ultimately be available in the home?

A: I think the trend in new builds in the UK, and in other countries, indicates that we are going to see much more airtight homes coming onto the market. This is obviously to preserve heat and reduce energy use, and this is seen as a benefit. But, of course, if your home is really airtight and there is a source of pollution, then that pollution can’t escape. So ultimately, I foresee that we will need some form of very low energy mechanical ventilation system, which includes air purification capabilities. I see a lot of potential for technological advances in home builds going forward, and all of these various aspects will be built into our environment – it will probably just become second nature for the next generation.

Q: The work of the ERG is primarily UK-focused but are there key learnings or outputs that can be harnessed for global projects?

A: Through the research that we’ve been involved in over the last 30 years, we’ve built up a tremendous understanding of the issue of air quality in urban areas. Although our focus has been primarily in London, that understanding is readily translatable across both the UK and the rest of the world. We have been particularly fortunate to work in China over the last seven years, with colleagues in Beijing at Peking University. They are fantastic scientists themselves, but the magnitude of the pollution problem that they are facing is such that our it did help them to have our expertise.

There have been been great strides in improving air quality in Chinese cities, through the application of different policies which have now been introduced, and some of which have been actively based on progressive work in this area. For example, we’ve recently been working with schoolchildren in the UK, providing them with backpacks which have air pollution monitors in them. Children carry their backpacks with them throughout the day, so we had constant information about what they were breathing, from their journey to school, to in their classroom, in the playground and, most importantly, at home in the evening. Through this, we were able to see that it was actually the cooking of the evening meal which was generating a lot of the pollution that the child was being exposed to.

We’ve now taken that wearable technology into studies in various African cities with pregnant women. Here we are using a handbag equivalent to the backpack idea, in which they carry their mobile phones and also small air pollution monitors. So, again, understanding the technology that we’ve been working with in London, it’s very translatable across the world in all these different challenging situations.

Q: What do you see is the key challenges ahead in the UK in terms of improving environmental quality?

A: I think, looking forward, both air quality and climate change have the same underlying fundamental issue, and that’s fossil fuels. We have got to stop burning fossil fuels. By doing that, we will improve both air pollution by lowering it and this will lead to less greenhouse gas formation. Fossil fuels can only be replaced by schemes such as expanding our renewable energy generation capacity in the country and ultimately, in urban areas, by electrification for public transport systems. That’s something we really need to expand on, going forward. So, we need more technology and scientific advancement in replacing fossil fuel use. That will be the biggest advance that we can make as a society.

Q: What are you personally excited about in this area over the next 30 years?

A: I’m personally excited that we have the capabilities and the personnel to be able to take forward and tackle some of these major issues, such as air pollution in our homes. I won’t be doing it for long myself, but I’m confident that we have, coming up, really talented people, staff and students. The environment is something that we have total control over, and we really should not be abusing it in the way we are presently. There are some very exciting advances to be made that will be beneficial for both the climate change agenda and the air pollution agenda, which I’m sure my colleagues will play a big role in.

Join the ERG later this year for a Seminar Series and Symposium on the theme of ‘Environment and Health Challenges in a Changing World’. Find out more at Environmental Research Group | Faculty of Medicine | Imperial College London