You can sequence your unique genome in search of genetic mutations that cause disease. But it’s much harder to study your ‘exposome’ — the cumulative effect of your environment on your health over a lifetime.
Now a pan-Canadian research consortium wants to connect detailed environmental data with public health data to study Canadians’ exposomes. Dr. Jeffrey Brook, an adjunct professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry and assistant professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, is leading the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium (CANUE), a first-of-its-kind effort and a Signature Initiative of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
“Every person has a unique history of what they’re exposed to in their environment, from before they were born to their present age,” says Brook, who is spending eight months away from his primary role as a senior research scientist with Environment Canada to lead CANUE out of the University of Toronto. “It’s like a fingerprint or unique signature — and that profile is as important in determining your health as your genome.”
“It’s the nature part of nature versus nurture,” adds Professor Greg Evans (ChemE), co-lead of CANUE’s measurement team, who has a longstanding research collaboration with Brook. Evans directs the Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research (SOCAAR), an interdisciplinary centre for studying air quality, which will contribute data on air pollution in urban areas.
CANUE is starting with six environmental attributes that affect health: air pollution, noise pollution, proximity to green space such as nature or parks, exposure to extreme weather, transportation options and neighbourhood factors. Neighbourhood factors consider both physical and intangible attributes of a person’s local surroundings, including urban design, land use, walkability, socioeconomic factors and more.
More than 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas, yet the integrated effects of the multiple factors that CANUE is characterizing across Canada environment on health have never been explored in detail.
“The sky is the limit for what we can do,” says Evans. “We’re trying to make real planning decisions — about planning our transportation systems, or building into surrounding green belts — but we are starving for more evidence about what the best decisions are for people’s health.”
CANUE will help add a new layer of environmental data on top of several massive public health studies already underway, including the Canadian Partnership for Tomorrow Project, which has more than 300,000 participants across the country, and the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development Study (CHILD), a birth cohort study including about 3,500 babies and their families from four major Canadian cities, including Toronto.
The consortium’s first workshop will be held in Toronto on December 7 and 8. Brook says he and CANUE’s managing director, Eleanor Setton of the University of Victoria, aim to further refine the consortium’s strategy for tackling the mammoth task of collecting and organizing scads of diverse data on a single platform and sustaining a vibrant network of Canadian scientists who can contribute data and methods, as well as capitalize on this new resource.
“What’s really exciting about CANUE is the strong community of people currently working on both environment and health, with backgrounds in geography, transportation, engineering, chemistry, epidemiology, biology, medicine and public health,” says Brook. “We’re actively facilitating this community’s coming together, all across the country — this is a big change, and everyone’s very excited about it.”