18:30 PM

Come Health or High Water

Pitt joins an interdisciplinary team to investigate the connection between environmental changes and health for Black Americans


An interdisciplinary team of engineers, social scientists, community organizers, and environmental activists received $1.35 million from the EPA to study the behavioral and respiratory effects on Black Americans exposed to fungal pathogens and bacteria.

Historically oppressed communities are faced with compounded health, economic and social injustices – with climate change making them worse.

Pitt engineers joined an interdisciplinary team and received $1.35 million from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) to study the impact of climate change on behavioral and respiratory effects of fungal and bacterial pathogens on Black Americans living in the Homewood and Hill District neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Sarah Haig, Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and co-investigator on the project, and her lab will collect dust samples from 110 Pittsburgh households to determine what’s possibly lurking in their basements. 

“Interactions between changing precipitation patterns and indoor air quality in urban-built environments are still poorly understood and have little research behind them,” said Haig. “By studying the presence and abundance of pathogenic respiratory fungi and bacteria found in basement dust we can begin to understand how climate change impacts home dampness and in turn how this impacts the air we breathe whilst indoors.” 

Rainfall, especially in the northeast United States, is increasing in frequency and intensity. These shifts in precipitation patterns are linked to flash flooding and even wetter basements. A wet basement creates weakened infrastructure, putting households at risk of exposure to environmental contaminants through leaks, breaks and sewer backups. 

“Our hope, together as a team, is to document conditions that simply have not been systematically documented, and to understand the impact of changing weather events (specifically extreme rainfall) on households in the Hill District and Homewood – two neighborhoods that have been historically oppressed,” said Tamara Dubowitiz, principal investigator of the project and senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “This is where the environmental justice component comes into play – we recognize the importance of gathering data in order to advocate for change and improvement of conditions in the neighborhoods that all too often are forgotten.” 

These environmental contaminants put residents at risk for asthma, rhinitis, and respiratory conditions, often leading to stress and depression. 

Alyssa Lyon, director of the Black Environment Collective at the UrbanKind Institute and co-investigator, said the environment directly impacts health – especially in marginalized communities. 

“Some of the people I’ve worked with in these areas have recounted their relationship with the environment,” Lyon said. “From having to quit their job because their child has severe asthma and as a result their child not being able to attend school. Due to lack of education, despair, and even confusion – all those collateral consequences – that child could eventually even turn to addiction. I think there’s a direct link between mental health  and a healthy space.” 

Lyon explained that because of the vulnerability of the communities in large-scale research projects, it’s important to include Black-led environmentalist groups to ensure accountability and transparency from the researchers for the residents. 

“It’s important for these institutions to know that we have our eye on you,” she said. “We’re going to make sure this money is going to be used for what you said it was going to be used for: to help these residents.” 

Haig and other researchers on the project are also concerned about radon: an invisible, radioactive and odorless gas that can be present in soil and groundwater. Radon enters a home through its foundation – especially a weakened one. Exposure to radon can cause difficulty breathing and swallowing, a bad cough, a hoarse speaking voice and tightness in the chest. 

Because of the number of homes,Haig and her team will need a little over two years to complete their research. The results will be used to study the link between basement pathogens, basement moisture, daily rainfall extremes, housing and neighborhood conditions, and cumulative health impacts for residents across the adult lifespan. The team is planning on working with local government agencies to develop and disseminate community-based solutions to solve the cumulative health impacts that are caused by these compounding issues.

Walter Lewis, president and CEO of the Homewood Children’s Village and another  principal investigators, said it’s critical that the project prioritizes community-based solutions that build on the research. He added that the project’s focus on community and using research to drive actual change was what led him to become a part of the project team. 

“All researchers are in agreement that this is not just another study that just gets published and sits on a shelf,” Lewis said. “It needs to be a study that turns into action, and there are people in the community also talking about it – using that power to ensure change happens.” 

The project, “Health and High Water: Health Impacts of Increased Rainfall of Families Living in Racially Isolated Neighborhoods in Pittsburgh PA,” also includes: 

  • The University of Pittsburgh: Daniel Bain and Emily Elliott
  • RAND Corporation: Linnea Warren May and Pierrce Holmes
  • Homewood’s Children’s Village: Raymond Robinson, Rebecca McDonough
  • Black Environmental Collective/UrbanKind Institute: Jamil Bey