Griffith Expert Associate Professor Anne Roiko and Alumnus Dr Anne Cleary join experts from 18 countries to contribute to the BlueHealth Project, a collaboration with the European Centre of Environment and Human Health (Exeter University).
After completing undergraduate studies in environmental science in her home of Dublin, Ireland, Anne Cleary moved to Australia to work for Healthy Land and Water, a not-for-profit in Queensland. It was through this position that she met Griffith Expert Anne Roiko. After the two discussed the benefits the natural environment can have on mental health, Assoc Prof Roiko encouraged Cleary to complete her PhD.
“When we met, I was coordinating a scientific expert panel Assoc Prof Roiko was chairing, and we had wonderful discussions around the broader mental health impacts of environmental health,” Dr Cleary explains.
“I had mentioned that I would like to broaden my scope from environmental science into environmental health, and Assoc Prof Roiko encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to help me complete my studies. I was successful in having my research fully funded for 3.5 years with a Griffith PhD Scholarship and a top-up scholarship from my employer, Healthy Land and Water.
“I cannot fault my time with Griffith. I’m grateful to the university in that during my PhD, I was supported to do industry placements that allowed me to complete an internship with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Bonn, Germany. That was a huge opportunity for professional development and to gain valuable experience which I’ve since applied in finding employment.”
While Dr Cleary currently works with the University of Queensland, she has continued working with Assoc Prof Roiko and Griffith University through a research collaboration with Exeter University. The BlueHealth Project is collecting survey-data research in 18 countries.
“With BlueHealth, we’re comparing and contrasting different cultures, communities, and climates to understand how people interact with different types of blue spaces and the health benefits associated with these diverse interactions,” Dr Cleary explains.
“A blue space is any body of water, either coastal or inland – so beaches obviously, but also lakes and streams. There’s a secondary aspect of spaces such as wetlands, which are partly green as well. Assoc Prof Roiko and I are currently looking into the social cohesion aspect of visiting blue spaces and potential role blue spaces play in fostering community and social connection.
“A recently published study from the BlueHealth Project shows while we know a blue space can have many positive impacts on the individual’s mental health, simply advising a patient to visit and interact with such places as part of their mental healthcare plan can be counterproductive, in that they feel pressure to get out and experience these places rather than simply choosing to enjoy them.”
Dr Cleary says her research intertwines with climate change and the historical management of land by Australia’s first peoples.
“If we want nature to look after us, we need to look after nature – when visiting blue spaces, we need to be careful to do no harm and obviously be aware that going out and spending time in a degraded environment could actually cause a risk to your health.
“It really is about having a reciprocal relationship with the blue space. That idea isn’t new – we can trace it back thousands of years to Australia’s first peoples actions in caring for the country, so that the country could care for them.”
Environmental health is a growing field as researchers from around the world look to save natural environments and improve sustainability while adapting to the problems created by climate change. Assoc Prof Anne Roiko says that there is a multitude of ways in which changes to the natural environment currently impact our health.
“This is what gets me up in the morning,” she jokes.
“So much is changing on different temporal and spatial scales that it’s hard for researchers to even keep up. We’re seeing diverse and far-reaching health impacts globally and here in Australia. All of us are experiencing the impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and environmental health professionals have critical roles in responding to it. But there’s also the bushfires, loss of biodiversity and the invisible but changing global climate.
“It impacts on us all directly and indirectly, both negatively and positively. There are obvious impacts we’re familiar with like air and water pollution, but also things like thunderstorm asthma and smoke from bushfires. We had the world’s largest, most catastrophic epidemic of thunderstorm asthma in November 2016 in Australia. There were 3,000 excess admissions in hospital departments for respiratory conditions, and sadly 10 people died. For asthma alone, there were 400 excess cases within a period of 30 hours – astronomical figures.
“Similarly, recent Australian bushfires saw over 10 million people affected for months intermittently by blankets of smoke. At their peaks, some levels were 10 times higher than hazardous levels. We’re just starting to measure and quantify those impacts now.”
At Griffith University, we are working across disciplines, schools and research centres to reduce the impacts of climate change through the Climate Action Beacon. This is a space where we can help prevent adverse health outcomes as well as help build more resilient communities through nature-based interventions. Assoc Prof Roiko says that current training for environmental health scientists aims to provide the skills needed to prepare our healthcare systems for more of these events in the future.
“Environmental changes are really guiding how we train environmental health scientists at Griffith because while we can’t predict what’s coming around the corner, we are training environmental health professionals who are ‘specialist generalists’, able to apply and adapt their scientific skills to address new challenges.
“To help make our environmental health scientists as prepared as possible, we’re teaching them how to work in partnership with a wide range of professionals, community groups and the public to provide those really transferable skills.
“In addition, digital technologies are changing everything. They’re changing the way we think about how pathogens invade our bodies and the interactions between chemicals and microbes. And then they’re allowing us to put layer after layer of social dimensions on our studies of these diseases to assess their long-term impacts. It’s also improving our rapid, real time monitoring.
“For students and graduates, this really stresses the need for complex systems thinking and the tools that support complex systems thinking. We’re changing the way we teach undergraduates by introducing them to these different technologies and methodologies, so that our graduates are now coming out with these skills ready to embrace these exciting opportunities, to just jump in and jump on board with opportunities to expand their skill sets.”
If like Assoc Prof Roiko and Dr Cleary you have a passion for environmental health, our Bachelor of Health Science offers an Environmental Health major. Already completed your undergraduate studies? Follow Dr Cleary’s path with a higher degree by research.