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Environmental Health Institute


Geisinger Center for Health Research and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health joined together to form the Environmental Health Institute (EHI) in 2007. The mission of the EHI is to understand how land use, the built environment, energy production and use, food systems and water systems may impact human health in central and northeast Pennsylvania. Such knowledge can be used not only to improve the health of Geisinger Health System patients, but also to understand how to develop and promote healthy and sustainable communities.

Brian Schwartz, MD, MS, professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; senior investigator, Geisinger Center for Health Research, serves as director of the EHI.

Why does Geisinger Health System have an Environmental Health Institute? Because…

  1. Geisinger is a leader in personalized medicine, integrating genomics into health systems. It is increasingly understood that our genes interact with exposures around us to cause disease. It has been said that, for many diseases, "…genes load the gun, but environmental exposures pull the trigger."
  2. Community circumstances can affect health. Many chronic diseases have lifestyle factors such as diet, physical activity and stress, that can be influenced by the communities in which we live.
  3. Community circumstances can enable or constrain the influence of healthcare. For example, diabetes care provided by the health system may be less effective in communities that constrain our ability to eat healthy or walk more.
  4. Our region has many old and emerging environmental conditions that could affect health. These include, for example, abandoned coal mines, Marcellus shale development and large-scale animal feeding operations that add antibiotics to animal feeds.
  5. New approaches to personalized medicine require that the health system consider and care for patients in the context of the communities in which they live.






Initiatives & Projects

The Built Environment & Obesity

We are evaluating the relation of the food, land use, physical activity and social environments, measured as features of communities, with body mass index by studying more than 160,000 children with a Geisinger primary care provider. We have funding from the National Institutes of Health as part of the Johns Hopkins systems-oriented childhood obesity center. This new center has three research projects, one of which is centered at Geisinger, and is applying mathematical modeling methods often used in engineering, such as complex dynamic systems and agent-based models, to the obesity epidemic in the region. In phase two of this work, we will complete more detailed measurements in both children and communities.


Abandoned Coal Mine Lands, Community Health & Diabetes

There is increasing concern in the public health community about living in communities with what has been termed chronic environmental contamination. Ann Liu, a doctoral student at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, completed her thesis research on the community and individual-level impacts of coal abandoned mine lands (AMLs).

Her first paper, that found that the greater the burden of AMLs in communities, the higher the community socioeconomic deprivation, was published in the peer-reviewed journal ISRN Public Health. Her second paper found that higher AML burden was associated with worse diabetes early in the disease course and worse progression over time in 28,000 Geisinger diabetic patients using hemoglobin A1c levels, a biomarker of diabetes severity and control.


Animal Feeding Operations & MRSA

The incidence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the region has increased dramatically over the past decade, with over 4,000 cases during this period. Recently, community-associated infections (CA-MRSA) have surpassed healthcare-associated infections (HA-MRSA) in incidence. Joan Casey, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins, completed her PhD dissertation research on this topic. Our research group made several interesting and novel observations which are summarized in three published, peer-reviewed manuscripts. We found: 1) the incidence of CA-MRSA increased by over 30 percent per year while that of HA-MRSA increased by five percent per year; 2) CA-MRSA cases now exceed HA-MRSA cases; 3) aspects of both the farms on which animals were raised and the crop fields to which manure was applied were associated with increased risk of MRSA infection and 4) certain molecular subtypes not previously associated with these animal operations were associated with human MRSA infections. We are currently investigating whether these animal feeding operations cause other health impacts.


Marcellus Shale & Health Outcomes

The EHI's most recent efforts involve the Marcellus shale. We are developing a number of research studies regarding the potential environmental impacts of unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) in the Marcellus shale, and how these may influence such health issues as asthma, cardiovascular disease and pregnancy outcomes.

Marcellus shale development can influence air, surface water and ground water quality, and we are developing studies to assess the potential health impacts of each of these sources and routes of exposure. We are also involved with Geisinger's larger efforts to launch a variety of Marcellus-related studies. We have obtained well and pipeline data from the state and are entering well completion report data into a geospatial database for use in future epidemiologic studies. We have obtained NIH funding to begin health studies.

The NIH study, Marcellus Shale Development, Respiratory and Reproductive Outcomes in Pennsylvania, will use well and infrastructure data to estimate exposures to all aspects of Marcellus shale development in Pennsylvania. These exposure estimates will then be used to evaluate whether asthma control and pregnancy outcomes are affected by Marcellus shale development by studying 30,000 asthma patients and 22,000 pregnancies in the Geisinger Health System from 2006-13. For more information, see the abstract.


The General Environment & Chronic Rhinosinusitis

We have been studying the epidemiology of chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS) in Geisinger's patients. This is a chronic condition with a significant patient and population disease burden. It has many links to environmental exposures. The EHI at Geisinger Health System, in collaboration with Northwestern University, The University of Chicago and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has been awarded a program project grant (PO1) by the NIH to study the epidemiology, genetics and pathobiology of chronic rhinosinusitis. The collaborative group, collectively known as the Chronic Rhinosinusitis Integrative Studies Program (CRISP), is the only PO1 recipient in the United States studying this common but poorly understood disease. Program project grants are more complex in scope and budget than individual research grants, and are made available to a group of several investigators with differing areas of expertise who wish to collaborate in research by pooling their talents and resources. These resources will fund continued studies examining the genetic, environmental, molecular and immunologic underpinnings of CRS in order to discover new means of treating this disease. Project 1 of the CRISP is focused on the epidemiology of CRS, using both electronic health records and new primary data collection consisting of surveys, sinus CT scans and sinus endoscopy in patients with nasal and sinus symptoms. This will allow us to develop new approaches to understanding the diagnosis, treatment, natural history and risk factors for this common, disabling condition. For more information on the NIH grant, see the abstract.




Grant Program

The EHI has developed a regional Marcellus Impact Pilot Program and made five awards totaling $100,000 to principal investigators from six different institutions that will provide research opportunities for nine students. Awards were made to Dr. Steven Rier (Bloomsburg University with United States Geological Survey partners), Dr. Lisa Bailey-Davis (Geisinger Health System), Dr. Jonathan Niles (Susquehanna University) with Dr. Chris Grant (Juniata College), Dr. Melvin Zimmerman and Dr. Peter Petokas (Lycoming College), and Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman (Lock Haven University).

PI/s and Institution/sProject Title
Dr. Steven Rier, Bloomsburg University (with United States Geological Survey Partners)Developing biofilm markers for monitoring the impacts of unconventional oil and gas development on stream ecosystems
Dr. Baily-Davis, Geisinger Health SystemPennsylvania farmers' perception of agricultural impacts from unconventional natural gas development in the Marcellus shale
Dr. Jonathan Niles, Susquehanna University and Dr. Chris Grant, Juniata CollegeAssessing potential impacts of unconventional natural gas extractions and mercury concentrations on trophic food webs of unassessed headwater streams
Dr. Melvin Zimmerman and Dr. Peter Petokas, Lycoming CollegeAn assessment of eastern hellbender population trajectories and water quality as determinates of watershed health
Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman, Lock Haven UniversityDetermination of the sources of turbidity in waterways in the Marcellus shale gas drilling region


In the News

Animal Feeding Operations & MRSA

Antibiotics and Childhood Obesity

Obesity and ADHD

Unconventional Natural Gas Development ("Fracking")


  • Nau C, Ellis H, Huang H, Hirsch A, Bailey-Davis L, Schwartz B, Pollak J, Liu A, Glass TA. What Renders a Community Obesogenic? Using Conditional Random Forests to Characterize a Risk Regime. 47th Annual meeting of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, Seattle, WA (concurrent contributed session), June 2014.
  • Nau C, Ellis H, Hong H, Hirsch A, Bailey-Davis L, Schwartz BS, Pollak J, Liu AY, Glass TA. Exploring the forest instead of the trees: an innovative method for defining obesogenic environments. Annual meeting of the Population Association of America, Boston, MA, May 2014.
  • Schwartz BS. Ongoing studies on the health effects of unconventional natural gas development. Invited participant in Impact of Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling Operations on the Environment and Public Health, Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, February 2014.
  • Nau C, Hirsch A, Bailey-Davis L, Schwartz BS, Pollak J, Liu A, Glass TA. Beyond Single Trees: Random Forests for Characterization of Obesogenic Environments in Children. 31st Annual scientific meeting of The Obesity Society, Atlanta, GA, November 2013.
  • Bailey-Davis L, Schwartz BS, Bandeen-Roche K, Hirsh AG, Pollack J, Glass TA. Longitudinal associations of psychotropic medication use with childhood body mass index trajectories. 31st Annual scientific meeting of The Obesity Society, Atlanta, GA, November 2013.
  • Schwartz BS. The use of electronic health records systems in 'BIG' environmental epidemiology. American College of Epidemiology Annual Meeting, Louisville, KY, September 2013.
  • Casey JA, Curriero FC, Schwartz BS. Residential proximity to high-density livestock farms or manure-applied cropfields and risk of tetracycline-resistant Staphylococcus aureus infection in Pennsylvania, USA, 2005-2010. Joint ISEE, ISES and ISIAQ Environmental Health Conference, Basel, Switzerland, August 2013.
  • Nau C, Glass TA, Liu AY, Pollak J, Hirsch A, Bailey-Davis L, Schwartz BS. Community socioeconomic deprivation and obesity trajectories in children using Big Data. 46th Annual Meeting of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, Boston, MA, June 2013.
  • Schwartz BS. Doing environmental epidemiology research with electronic health records and Environmental health data streams: health data. In meeting entitled: The Heterogeneity of Environmental Health Data: Fostering Integration to Advance Discovery. For the Standing Committee on Use of Emerging Science for Environmental Health Decisions, National Research Council, Washington, DC, January 2013.
  • Schwartz BS, Pollak J, Bailey-Davis L, Nau C, Hirsch A, Glass TA, Bandeen-Roche K. Antibiotic use and childhood body mass index trajectories. 26th annual International Society for Environmental Epidemiology conference, Seattle, WA, August 2014.
  • Casey JA, Ogburn EL, Rasmussen SG, Irving JK, Pollak J, Locke PA, Schwartz BS. Indoor radon concentrations in Pennsylvania: does unconventional natural gas development play a role? 26th annual International Society for Environmental Epidemiology conference, Seattle, WA, August 2014.
  • SundaresanA, Hirsch AG, Storm M, Schwartz BS. Occupational and environmental risk factors for chronic rhinosinusitis: a systematic review.  Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Atlanta, GA, November 2014.
  • Bailey-Davis L, Pollak J, Hirsch AG, Nau C, Glass TA, Bandeen-Roche K, Schwartz BS. Antibiotics and childhood body mass index (BMI) trajectories using electronic health records (EHR). Annual meeting of The Obesity Society (TOS), Boston, MA, November 2014.
  • Rasmussen SG, Irving JK, Mercer DG, Schwartz BS. Marcellus shale development, air pollution, and asthma exacerbations. Annual River Symposium, Bucknell University, Lewisberg, PA, November 2014.
  • Casey J, Rasmussen S, Pollak J, Ogburn E, Irving J, Schwartz BS. Exposure to unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania and pregnancy outcomes. Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, April 2015.
  • Casey J, Rasmussen S, Pollak J, Ogburn E, Irving J, Schwartz BS. Birth outcomes and unconventional natural gas development in Pennsylvania USA 2009-2013. Concurrent Contributed Session, 48th Annual SER Meeting, Denver, CO, June 2015.
  • Casey JA, James P, Schwartz BS. Associations of greenness and birth outcomes in a range of Pennsylvania communities. Annual meeting of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, São Paulo, Brazil, August 2015.
  • Casey JA, Schwartz BS. Associations of unconventional natural gas development and maternal health outcomes. Annual meeting of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, São Paulo, Brazil, August 2015.
  • Rasmussen S, Schwartz BS. Marcellus shale development, air pollution, and asthma exacerbations. Annual meeting of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, São Paulo, Brazil, August 2015.
  • Tustin AW, Hirsch AG, Rasmussen S, Casey JA, Schwartz BS. Associations between unconventional natural gas development and nasal and sinus, migraine headache, and fatigue symptoms in Pennsylvania. American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s 101st annual American Occupational Health Conference, AOHC 2016, Chicago, IL, April 2016.
  • Rasmussen SG, Ellis H, Koehler KA, Schwartz BS. Exposure assessment in unconventional natural gas and health studies. Annual meeting of the International Society for Exposure Science (ISES), Utrecht, The Netherlands, October 2016.

Invited Seminars

  • "Big data environmental epidemiologic research using electronic health records." Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering Seminar Series, University of Michigan, March 2015.
  • "Climate, energy and carbon pricing issues surrounding the built environment." Global Health Opportunity of the 21st Century: Tackling Climate Change. The Johns Hopkins University Summit on Climate Change and Health, Baltimore, MD, October 2015.
  • "Update on Marcellus Shale Studies: Geisinger Environmental Health Institute.” Pennsylvania League of Women Voters 3rd annual Shale and Public Health Conference, Pittsburgh, PA, November 18, 2015.
  • "Update on Unconventional Natural Gas Development Studies by the Geisinger Environmental Health Institute.” Pitt Public Health Grand Rounds, University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Health, Pittsburgh, PA, November 19, 2015.
  • Keynote address: "Shale Gas Development and Health: Update on Studies of the Geisinger Environmental Health Institute.” Health & Shale Gas Development: State of the Science, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, Pittsburgh, PA, June 10, 2016.