Grants to UofL provide research into connections between green environment and human health

    green wall at St. Margaret Mary
    A "green wall" in the area between Shelbyville Road and St. Margaret Mary School in Louisville is involving students at the school and the Green Heart project, directed by Aruni Bhatnagar, in measuring how trees can eliminate air pollution.

    Besides shade and beauty, can trees and shrubs actually help make people healthier? In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers from the University of Louisville Envirome Institute are working with a neighborhood in South Louisville to answer that question.

    Today, UofL announced a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health to help fund the Green Heart project. The university also announced a $2 million grant from The Nature Conservancy to support the endeavor.

    The Green Heart study will look at the connections between a green environment and human health. The institute will study air quality, innovative landscape design, the qualities of a friendly, healthy neighborhood and human health.

    “The Green Heart project is the epitome of collaboration,” said UofL President Neeli Bendapudi, Ph.D. “Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar and his team are bringing together people from not only all of the university, but throughout Louisville and beyond to create a new paradigm for population research that truly has international implications.

    “His creative thinking is leading to innovative public-private partnerships that eventually will lead to healthier communities.”

    “People appreciate trees and they’re good and they’re aesthetically pleasing, but whether they actually have specific quantifiable health-promoting effects by removing pollutants from air has never been rigorously tested,” said Bhatnagar, director of the Envirome Institute and the Smith and Lucille Gibson Chair in Medicine. “Through the Green Heart project, we are changing that.”

    More than half the world’s population resides in urban areas, which have higher than average levels of air pollution. Air pollution is a significant contributor to cardiovascular disease and is linked to 7 million premature deaths worldwide annually, 200,000 in the United States alone.

    Bhatnagar and his team will include 16 low-vegetation neighborhood clusters in Louisville to examine the impact of urban greenery on their health. The researchers are recruiting 700 community participants within these 16 clusters for the study. The team will examine blood, urine and hair samples to assess cardiovascular health.

    In eight of the clusters, the team and their partners will plant as many as 8,000 native trees of all sizes. Additionally, they will plant shrubbery and grasses to further optimize the ability to filter pollutants from the air.

    Two years later, the researchers again will collect samples from the volunteers and analyze the differences. They also will compare the results to those from the participants in the eight neighborhood clusters that did not live in the areas that had the plantings.

    “We believe that the greening of the neighborhoods will positively impact not only the air quality, but also the health of the people who live in those areas,” Bhatnagar said. “If we are correct, we may be able to create new strategies for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

    “The results of this project also will provide new insights into the effects of urban vegetation on community environment. These findings will be relevant to the development of new public health polices and the optimization of ongoing planting efforts in cities around the world to enhance public health.

    The Green Heart Project is a collaborative initiative of the University of Louisville with Washington University in St. Louis; Cornell University, The Nature Conservancy, Hyphae Design Laboratory, the United States Forest Service and other partners. The grant from the National Institutes supports health evaluation of community participants, whereas the greening efforts are supported by the grant from The Nature Conservancy.



    Jill Scoggins is Director of Communications at UofL's Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. She has been at UofL since 2010.