In conversation with Dr. Gabriel Filippelli

Dr. Gabriel Filippelli is a Professor of Earth Sciences and Director of the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His research and writing is aimed at climate change impacts on the environmental and human health, including human exposures to harmful environmental components. He works in a number of settings, but particularly enjoys research in urban environments, relying strongly on citizen-science and community-engaged research to both understand the science and to motivate community action on environmental health. He publishes widely in scientific journals and informal venues, is the Editor-in-Chief of the journal GeoHealth, has research funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, is a Fellow of the International Association of GeoChemistry, and is an Air Quality Fellow of the U.S. State Department Embassy in Islamabad. Find Dr. Filippelli on Twitter.

A short Q&A with Dr. Filippelli :

Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you get interested in science? 

I have always been fascinated by how nature works, with my first obsessions being planets and stars, followed shortly thereafter by earth sciences. After my undergraduate degree in Geology from the University of California, my wife and I spent over two years as US Peace Corps Volunteers, living on a small atoll in the Pacific Ocean in Kiribati. Living with ocean all around me, and even back then hearing about how climate change was going to threaten low lying islands like those of Kiribati, I dedicated my research career on how nature, climate, and humans interact. I started first by getting a PhD in Earth Sciences from the University of California, and then pursuing my passions as a professor.

You spent two weeks in Pakistan as a Science Envoy. What were your key takeaways from this experience? 

Because of my teaching schedule I was only able to spend two weeks in your beautiful country, giving lectures and engaging with various stakeholders on issues of air quality and human health in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. I found a strong passion from communities to clean up the environment, including the air, and a burgeoning commitments from the government to facilitating and enforcing environmental regulations. I also found extremely qualified researchers in universities there, many of them with a strong interest in air quality and health, even if they didn’t personally have expertise in these areas yet.

What are the three biggest challenges related to air pollution in South Asia/Pakistan? 

Because air pollution is a transboundary issue, it needs to be attacked from a regional perspective, and this coordination on monitoring and enforcement among countries may be a challenge.

There are generally inadequate air quality monitoring systems in place to identify the discrete sources of air pollutants and to then mitigate those sources.

Economic pressures seem to be pitting the environment against business development and employment—this is a false argument, as you can have a cleaner environment while also employing people and making money.

Are there any success stories you can highlight? 

Two success stories come to mind. Mexico City had terrible air pollution, made worse by its geographic location at a high altitude and surrounded by a ring of mountains, which trap the pollutants in the basin. Citizens became frustrated with the situation, and began developing community-driven air quality measurement networks to find out the most immediate sources of their pollution—in this case, the particulate emission from the buses in the heavily-used mass transit system. Communities agreed to a number of small measures (increased fares, taxes) in partnership with government funds to update the buses to low and zero emission vehicles, resulting in huge improvements in air quality.

Another example is Los Angeles, with its own geographic issue, mountains to the east, which similarly trapped bad air in the city. My wife grew up there, and remembers “smog days” when they couldn’t go outside of the classrooms in school. Los Angeles city officials began monitoring and identified that individual vehicles were the main issue, and started enforcing annual emission testing for personal vehicles. They had to pass the “smog test” every year to be registered for driving. This quickly became a state-wide law, and given the huge population of California, automakers started having to make improvements in all of their vehicles so that they could sell a car in the huge California market. So, one city forced a shift in the entire industry to clean up.

Are you working on any pollution-related projects in South Asia? 
Yes, I am working on several projects that initiated during my visit in Pakistan. They are strictly partnerships with talented university researchers in Pakistan, but I hope that they expand—my main interest in in helping to develop distributed air quality measurement networks and continue to translate the science of air quality and health effects in a way that normal people can understand, and then use in their own lives.