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Topics: Five Questions, Funding, Health, Pilot Funding, Public Health

Five Questions with Joseph Allen

Hormone disrupters in the office: Pilot funding advances healthy-building science.

Joseph Allen playing guitar with his daughter.
Joseph Allen playing guitar with his daughter.

Joseph Allen, DSc, has made a career out of fixing “sick” buildings – ones so full of indoor pollutants that their inhabitants became ill – and he’s sick of it. He wants to shift the paradigm, to change the game to designing buildings with health in mind from the start.

From the White House’s new acknowledgement that ventilation needs to be part of COVID-19 prevention to JP Morgan’s new flagship headquarters in Manhattan, he’s applying what he’s learned about indoor pollutants in practical ways every day. But when a postdoc in his lab wanted to pursue an out-of-the-box line of research to look at how combinations of chemicals in office buildings disrupt human hormones, there wasn’t an open research lane to pursue the question. Pilot funding from our Everyday Exposures: Toxins & Health 2021 opportunity unlocked the gate.

Allen is associate professor of exposure assessment science in the department of environmental health at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, where he directs the Healthy Buildings program. We caught up with him shortly after his advocacy at the White House to recognize building ventilation as a fundamental principle in pandemic preparedness.

You had a long career as a “sick building” consultant before running the Healthy Buildings program at the Chan School. How does this pilot funding fit into the rest of your work?

The genesis of the Healthy Buildings program came from my own experience training in public health decades ago. I was not trained in building systems or building science. It wasn’t until I graduated with my degrees and started as a consultant doing forensic investigations of sick buildings that I realized what was missing. Half of the teams I directed were people like me, epidemiologists with backgrounds in biostatistics, public health, or exposure risk assessment. The other half were building scientists and engineers. It became clear to me that to solve these problems, we had to merge these disciplines into a healthy-building lens and stop chasing sick buildings. We would have to flip the script to design and operate buildings with a health lens from the start.

“We would have to flip the script to design and operate buildings with a health lens from the start.”

We’re an indoor species. We spend the majority of our time indoors, yet the places we live, work, play, pray, and heal have not been designed for health. We’ve been in a 40-year sick-building era because public health has not had a seat at the table when it comes to setting ventilation standards or building codes. The purpose of the Healthy Buildings program is to change all of that. How do we go from the sick-building era to the healthy-building era? It’s time for public health to step up.

My brother always said if we’re just pointing out problems without solutions, that’s called complaining. So a big focus of our team is not just looking at the problem, but asking “What is the solution set?” We believe there are solutions that can be applied to building design across all domains. This pilot project designed and led by Anna Young, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in my lab and world-class scientist, is plugged into the entire Healthy Buildings program. It’s not off on its own. It feeds into the solution.

What is the value of these kinds of pilot funding programs to explore a question like this?

We can’t do the type of work that Anna is doing without this pilot funding because it’s so exploratory. The idea that we can analyze chemicals in wristbands is relatively new in our field. Anna’s work takes that even further by looking at the hormonal activity of these chemicals in complex mixes. It’s really leading-edge. I think that’s the value of these pilot projects. It allows us to take a chance a bit more and explore something we might not otherwise be able to.

Read “Five Questions with Anna Young” for more details on the pilot-funded research.

That’s part of the role of research, isn’t it — to take chances? We should also be creative and not boxed into our existing research portfolio. Our greatest assets as a university are brilliant scientists and researchers like Anna, who is ambitious and has big ideas. Anytime you have a great scientist like her come along, you want to create these lanes that are outside of our usual lane. Sometimes it sparks a whole other set of research, and this is what this project is now kicking off. But we can’t take these creative risks without additional funding streams such as these pilot grants.

Has COVID-19 upped the ante on clean indoor air?

COVID-19 has finally woken people up. In March, the Biden administration announced healthy buildings as a new pillar in its pandemic response. We had been advising the White House on the issue for a couple months leading up to the announcement of the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, which was marked with a big event at the White House. It’s the first time we have the White House making the statement that buildings matter, something we’ve been talking about for a long time.

“We can’t do the type of work that Anna is doing without this pilot funding because it’s so exploratory.”

Fundamentally, this is a virus that is spread through the air indoors. We have very little if any spread outdoors; it’s happening indoors in under-ventilated and under-filtered buildings. I wrote an editorial on healthy buildings as the first line of defense against coronavirus on February 9, 2020, the first of over 50 op-eds in the past two years. Every single one mentions ventilation and filtration. It took us over a year to get CDC, World Health Organization, and others to even acknowledge airborne spread. If you don’t acknowledge airborne spread, then the building doesn’t matter. If it’s airborne, you get people paying attention to ventilation and filtration. It’s been a real battle to get this acknowledged. But now the acknowledgement is clear with the White House announcement. You can no longer have a COVID-19 response plan or a respiratory-infection plan, or any pandemic plan, that doesn’t include buildings.

This will be one of the transformative outcomes for public health coming out of the pandemic. The role of the building can no longer be ignored. There aren’t many silver linings coming out the pandemic but that’s one. I think there’s a paradigm shift underway. I wrote about this in Science with colleagues around the world. The shift is that we should expect clean air in our buildings just as we expect clean water coming from our taps. Somehow, we don’t have that. It has never been part of the public health focus. It’s time for national indoor air quality standards.

Are indoor air quality standards the answer?

Honestly, this is why a lot of our team’s focus is working with the private sector. I think standards will get there eventually, but we don’t have time. We have a COVID-19 crisis upon us. We have a climate crisis upon us. We have an equity crisis upon us. We can’t wait 10 years for the codes to change. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pursue regulatory codes and standards, and many talented people are working in that domain. My focus has been on moving the market and showing how it can be done.

One of the reasons I like working in the private sector is that if you make a convincing science-based argument on Friday to an executive, behavior will change in that company on Monday morning. I’ve seen it happen. Let’s make the health case the business case and make it a no-brainer. There’s no reason companies shouldn’t pursue these healthy-building strategies. It’s good for business, good for the planet, good for equity, and good for the health of the employees. We show in our book, it’s good for worker productivity, so that influences bottom-line company performance. Healthy buildings are just good business. What CEO doesn’t want their employees to perform their best?

Health is not just absence of disease. We should certainly design and operate buildings in a way that reduces disease burden, but we should also consider how buildings can benefit people in terms of their wellbeing, the ability to thrive, to think clearly, to be productive, and to be happy.

I see guitars in the background. Are you a guitar player?

I am. I try to keep them close so I can grab them between Zooms. I picked it up back in college when I played bass in a band, like a lot of people (laughs). I’ve got a little amp back here, and I just pick them up when I can. My kids play. We sing together and play together. My 12-year-old daughter and I are working on a new song. So that’s what I’ve been working on in between everything else.

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