Despite the different focuses of their respective fields, transportation researchers and human health professionals are discovering ways to work together on projects — and their new collaborations are creating even more opportunities never before considered.
“We have a tendency to work within a vacuum, but we are learning that when we bring our separate expertise to the table, we can accomplish some great things,” says Joe Zietsman, head of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s (TTI’s) Environment & Air Quality Division. “Transportation is a health and safety issue, and health issues often involve transportation.”
For example, in a unique study between TTI and health researchers from the Texas A&M Health Science Center (HSC) and John Hopkins University, a pilot project is underway near the Texas-Mexico border evaluating the health consequences of vehicle emissions on pregnant women and their unborn children.
“Hidalgo County has among the highest rates of childhood asthma in the state. Is it related to worsening air quality issues along the border?” asks Natalie Johnson of the HSC School of Public Health. “On the health side of the project, we’re monitoring air pollution exposures of 25 expectant women through blood and urine samples. But we need TTI researchers to help us understand how the transportation sector is contributing to these exposures.”
To find out the effect of transportation-related emissions, TTI is studying traffic characteristics in relation to the women’s daily travel and activity patterns to identify relevant trends. Additionally, climatic and meteorological conditions that may affect pollutant transport and dispersion are also being looked at.
The South Texas emissions project is not the first time TTI has worked with health researchers, and it likely won’t be the last.
Last year, TTI and medical professionals began a project designed to link crash data to individual patients in hopes of improving treatment and emergency responses. Also, knowing all the factors of crashes and treatment outcomes, linked data could help prioritize safety projects.
And in July, Zietsman conducted a workshop involving TTI and HSC to explore other research opportunities in greater depth. The Strategic Research Development for Health and Transportation workshop included presentations and round-table discussions focusing on research priorities, ongoing research, available resources, key personnel and funding opportunities. A strategic plan for how the two agencies can cooperate is being developed as a result of the ideas generated from the workshop.
“At the intersection of public health and transportation, there appears to be substantial funding opportunities in the areas of air quality, physical activity, safety and access to critical destinations,” Zietsman explains. “We are excited about the things we can do together in the future. These are projects that we could not consider without each other’s expertise.”