Finding Her Passion in Environmental Health

Air pollution city.

Can the air you breathe make you sick? What about the water you drink? Even though humans are dependent on both for survival, they both can certainly cause serious health problems if polluted, according to Lina Mu, PhD, MD, University at Buffalo associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health, and director of the Office of Global Health Initiatives. 

Lina Mu at desk.

Mu has spent her career researching these environmental health factors, specifically as they relate to cancer. One of Mu’s first exposures to these issues was through a cancer mortality study she completed in the Jiangsu province in Southern China.

The goal of the study was to determine why there were such elevated levels of esophageal, stomach and liver cancers in the provincial area. Mu and fellow researchers determined that increased cancer rates in the area were due to high levels of pollution in the area’s bodies of water. Mu said the experience was eye-opening for her.

“It really was when I started to wonder about the environment and its contribution to health,” she said.

In an additional study, Mu and researchers looked at high lung cancer rates in the female population, a group that characteristically has a much lower smoking rate than their male counterparts.

“We identified that indoor air pollution was the problem. Cooking fuel and poor ventilation systems in the kitchen were major contributors [to illness],” said Mu. “This was when I really developed a passion for studying environmental exposure.”

Mu has continued this research as it pertains to the United States. A recent study led by Mu looked at indoor air pollution exposure and early childhood development in U.S. mother-child pairs, a pioneer study in America. The study concluded that natural gas, propane, and wood fuel use during pregnancy and early life are associated with early childhood development issues. Another study led by her PhD students found that ambient air pollution exposure during pregnancy is associated with gestational diabetes.

“Reducing air pollution exposure is critical, especially around people who are vulnerable, like pregnant women, infants, and children. On a personal level, if you can’t change your cooking fuel, use a good ventilation system or an air purifier to reduce air pollution level inside your house,” Mu said.

Mu looks forward to expanding her research on environmental exposure, including trying to understand the impact not just on chronic diseases but on the lifetime impact of early life exposure. She also wants to focus on preventative measures. She credits much of her research’s success to the University at Buffalo’s collaborative environment.

“It took me no time to find collaborators. I see that there’s consistent effort university-wide to help you build multi-disciplinary teams,” she said.