Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science
My quick story (via Harvard Gazette):
- Assistant Professor
- Director, Healthy Buildings Program (ForHealth.org)
- Deputy Director, Harvard Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety & Health
I believe that we have to force a collision between these two disciplines: building science and health science. The indoor built environment (homes, offices, schools, hospitals, airplanes, laboratories) plays a critical role in our overall health, both due to the amount of time we spend indoors (~90%) and the ability of the buildings to positively and negatively influence our exposure. The goal is to improve the health of all people, in all buildings, everywhere, every day. I propose moving from the term Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for businesses to Health Performance Indicators (HPIs) – making health explicit in all aspects of decision-making. Learn more about my Healthy Buildings program at:
For several years in private industry before joining the faculty at Harvard, I led teams of scientists and engineers investigating, and resolving, hundreds of indoor environmental quality issues, from ‘sick buildings’ to cancer clusters to all types of chemical/radiological/biological hazards. I learned two important facts: 1) too often we are responding to issues after there is a problem, and 2) we cannot solve these problems without a multidisciplinary approach. I have an interest in the dynamic interplay between the indoor environment and health and am continuing this line of research at Harvard, with a focus on optimizing indoor environments for health benefits. A natural extension of my research on buildings and the indoor environment is the consideration of the products we use in those environments, and how those influence our exposure and health. This interest started with my doctoral research on novel flame retardant chemicals in consumer products and continued with an investigation for the Consumer Product Safety Commission on “Chinese Drywall”. Most recently, I have extended this line of research by flipping the question; instead of asking how do we fix problem buildings after they occur, I am asking – “how do we optimize indoor environments for health, well-being and productivity?” This effort is highlighted by our recent work on the impact of green buildings on cognitive function, in which we found an association between high performing indoor spaces and cognitive function of office workers.
Building for Health at Harvard:
We are aggressively moving on this vision. I started the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. One of the first goals of my program was to synthesize 30 years of public health science into identifying what it is that makes a building ‘healthy’. The result: the 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building.
We designed a new course, The Impact of Buildings on Health, Productivity and Sustainability at the Harvard Chan School, cross-enrolled by students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). I am the faculty advisor to a new student group – Built Environment and Health Student Consortium (BEHSC). We developed a new executive education course – Building for Health – to train business leaders on this topic. I am the faculty advisor for a new initiative led by Harvard’s Office for Sustainability – Harvard Healthy Building Materials Academy. And the Harvard Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Graduate School of Design are now offering a joint degree program. The Healthy Buildings movement is on.
We advocate a “Buildingomics” approach. “Buildingomics” is the totality of factors in the building-related environment that influence human health, well-being and productivity of people who work in those buildings. With high spatial and temporal monitoring arrays, we are able to develop health scores for buildings, and move one step closer to understanding the key factors that drive health in buildings.
Green buildings and cognitive function (Top 10 most viewed article in Environ Health Perspectives, 2016; Top 5 most viewed article in Environ Health Perspectives, 2017)
Flavoring chemicals in e-cigs (#1 most viewed research article in Environ Health Perspectives, 2016 and 2017)
Wall Street Journal / Washington Post / the Atlantic / NPR / Fortune / BBC / NY Times / CBS / Reddit, r/science / Telegraph / Time / Discovery / Reuters / Harvard Gazette / STAT News / Motherboard / Economic Times / Gizmodo / [Perez Hilton!] / Naked Scientists / China Real Estate Business / Fox News / Lancet Respiratory Medicine / Newsweek / LA Times / CNN / US News & World Report / Al Jazeera / Harvard Gazette / Boston Globe / Politico / National Geographic / Harvard Business Review / New York Times
Harvard Business Review: Stale Office Air is Making You Less Productive
Op-Ed, NY Times (2018): The Formaldehyde in Your E-Cigs
Op-Ed, Washington Post (2016): Playing Games with Toxic Chemicals
Op-Ed, Washington Post (2018): Forever Chemicals
Op-Ed, The Hill (2018): Want Air-Conditioning AND a Healthier Planet?
Op-Ed, Washington Post (2019): Chlorpyrifos and the War on Children’s Health
The Environmentalist Papers – a scientific defense of the environment and health
Associate Editor, Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology
Faculty Advisor, Harvard Healthier Building Materials Academy
Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel, American Lung Association
White House (2016) Roundtable on The Health Benefits of Nature
Building For Health Leadership Series
Teaching – EH252: “The Impact of Buildings on Health, Productivity and Sustainability”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Research Strategy Review – “Harmful Physical and Social Environments”
Faculty Advisor, Built Environment & Health Student Consortium (BEHSC)
Department of Energy, “Buildings of the Future”
Advisory Committee, Healthy and Affordable Materials Project (JPB Foundation grant)
Bachelor of Science (B.S)., Boston College
Master of Public Health (M.P.H.), Boston University
Doctor of Science (D.Sc.), Boston University
Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH)
Before he became a public health researcher at Harvard, Joseph Allen investigated hundreds of “sick buildings” as a consultant for owners who complained about illness in workers or residents from mold, dampness, and other unhealthy conditions.
Sometimes the fixes were easy—increase ventilation—and sometimes they were harder—poor construction—but over time, Allen began to realize that considerable money and pain could be saved if buildings were optimized for human health at the outset.
Scientists increasingly are taking a critical look at such indoor environmental factors, which they say can affect our personal health and work performance. Specially outfitted buildings are being turned into laboratories to determine optimum air-ventilation rates, room temperatures, types of sounds and other features, and even whether these should change during the year.
Nicotine isn’t the only ingredient in e-cigarettes, though. Studies from Harvard and Johns Hopkins researchers found that e-cigarette users wind up inhaling dangerous chemicals and toxic heavy metals along with their nicotine fix.
Ever feel during one of these recent sweltering days that it’s just so hot you can’t think straight?
Well, maybe you can’t.
Harvard researchers say that they studied students in dorms with and without air conditioning and during a heat wave. They found that the students suffering through the heat performed worse on a series of cognitive tests.