Joseph Allen

Associate Professor of Exposure Assessment Science

Department of Environmental Health

My quick story (via Harvard Gazette):

Your building might be making you sick. Joe Allen can help.

My Roles:

  • Associate Professor
  • Director, Healthy Buildings Program (ForHealth.org)
  • Deputy Director, Harvard Education and Research Center for Occupational Safety & Health

My vision:

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:

forhealth

My story:

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.

Buildingomics

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.

Select Research: 

J G Allen NIH Bibliography

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)

Health Performance Indicators (HPIs)

Buildingomics

Harnessing the power of healthy buildings research to advance health for all

Impact of Green space around schools and chronic absenteeism

Flavoring chemicals in e-cigs (#1 most viewed research article in Environ Health Perspectives, 2016 and 2017)

Extreme heat linked with reduced cognitive performance among young adults

Legionnaires’ disease and risk in hospitals

Flame retardants and thyroid disease

Elevated corrosion rates in homes with “Chinese drywall”

Airplane cabin and passenger comfort

Airplane pilot mental health and suicidality

Biophilic design

National Geographic – Urban Expeditions

Schools for Health: Foundations for Student Success

Press:

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

Op-Eds:

Harvard Business Review: Stale Office Air is Making You Less Productive

Op-Ed, New York Times (2020): Your Building Can Make You Sick or Keep You Well

Op-Ed, Financial Times (2020): How Healthy Buildings Can Help Us Fight Coronavirus

Op-Ed, Washington Post (2019): Chlorpyrifos and the War on Children’s Health

Op-Ed, New York Times (2018): The Formaldehyde in Your E-Cigs

Op-Ed, Washington Post (2018): Forever Chemicals

Op-Ed, The Hill (2018; co-authored with Jose Cedeno-Laurent): Want Air-Conditioning AND a Healthier Planet?

Op-Ed, STAT (2017; co-authored with Aaron Bernstein and Tracey Woodruff): The Environmentalist No.1: A Scientific Defense of the Environment and Health

Op-Ed, Washington Post (2016): Playing Games with Toxic Chemicals

The Environmentalist Papers – a scientific defense of the environment and health

 

Service:

Associate Editor, Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology

Associate Editor, Indoor Air

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)

Education:

Bachelor of Science (B.S)., Boston College

Master of Public Health (M.P.H.), Boston University

Doctor of Science (D.Sc.), Boston University

Certification:

Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH)

Stale Office Air is Making You Less Productive

Ultimately, managers would be wise to routinely incorporate health impacts into all of their cost-benefit calculations. When health is accounted for, the costs for enhancing the indoor environment can be properly weighed against the health and productivity benefits. For example, an executive will clearly see that an enhanced facilities budget will reduce human resource costs. This makes buildings, in essence, a human resource tool.

5 Surprising Ways Buildings Can Improve Our Health

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 Probe Indoor Work Spaces for Clues to Better Health

Many people pay little attention to the air, light and other elements around them when they are working in an office or are at home.

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.

A Greener, More Healthful Place to Work

Efforts are currently underway to quantify the effects of biophilic design. Dr. Allen’s group is using virtual reality to test people’s heart rate variability and stress levels in a variety of simulated indoor environments. “We all know what it’s like in a stuffy conference room,” Dr. Allen said. “People are tired and distracted. You can just feel it when the fresh air comes in, it’s incredibly rejuvenating.”

Your Office Air Is Killing You

Air quality was never a primary concern for building developers, but the past few generations of construction have been particularly problematic; since the 1950s, buildings have increasingly been constructed to be more airtight, mostly for energy efficiency, says Joseph Allen, an environmental health researcher at Harvard University. But often that trend wasn’t offset by increased ventilation, leading to a common problem: buildup of carbon dioxide and various pollutants.

Forever Chemicals

They say nothing lasts forever. Nothing, that is, except a group of toxic chemicals that may be associated with testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol and suppression of vaccine effectiveness in children. They are now in nearly all of our bodies, are found in the air and water around the globe, and they never go away. They are “Forever Chemicals.”

Can an office building make you healthier and more productive?

A growing body of research shows that improving lighting, ventilation, and heat control improves workers’ performance, boosts their productivity, and even helps them sleep better at night. And developers and architects are starting to tout these benefits to potential tenants as a way to attract a higher caliber of employee — and get more work out of them.

Stop Playing Whack-A-Mole with Hazardous Chemicals

Innocent until proven guilty may be the right starting point for criminal justice, but it is disastrous chemical policy. We need to recognize regrettable substitution for what it is: repeated substitution of toxic chemicals with equally toxic chemicals in a dangerous experiment to which none of us knowingly signed on.

A Pilot's Performance Is Affected by Cockpit C02 Levels, Study Suggests

The air quality in a cockpit directly affects how well an airplane pilot performs, according to research. Commercial airline pilots who took part in the study by a team at Harvard T.H. School of Public Health were better able to perform complex maneuvers in a flight simulator when the carbon dioxide concentration in the air was 700 parts per million (ppm), compared with 2,500ppm.

Juul and the vape debate: Choosing between smokers and teens

What’s in the vape?
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.

The Formaldehyde in your E-cigs

Recently, there has been a shift away from calling e-cigarettes “e-cigs.” In public health circles, people now tend to call them by what they do: deliver nicotine to the inhaler. Thus, the term Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, ENDS for short, has come into vogue. But I have a problem with that name. Nicotine isn’t the only thing e-cigs deliver; they also deliver formaldehyde, a carcinogen. It seems equally fair to call them Electronic Formaldehyde Delivery Systems.

Indoor Heat Waves

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.