Country landscape

Environment and health

The places where we live, shop, work, and play have been shown to contribute importantly to the way we feel, the decisions we make, and our general health. For example, many aspects of the social, natural, physical, and built environment can promote healthy or unhealthy behaviours and increase our risk of being exposed to hazardous substances and infectious agents.  These environments can also provide valuable information on the health of our communities. Our work seeks to contribute to the understanding of (1) population health through the use of environmental measures, (2) environmental factors contributing to our health and related behaviours, and (3) who is more susceptible to environmental influences. This knowledge will be used to inform the development of novel public health strategies and the identification of at-risk groups.

Current research projects

Individual differences in responsiveness to food environments

(PI: Dr Catherine Paquet)

Food or nutrition environments (the places where we purchase or consume food) have received a lot of attention in recent decades for their role in promoting healthy or unhealthy eating, as well as in contributing to the risk of developing obesity and cardio-metabolic diseases. Although there is some evidence to support these associations, the evidence for a direct link between food environment, and nutritional and health outcomes remains mixed. Potential reasons for these mixed results are limitations in the way food environments have been measured and the assumption that all individuals are equally susceptible to the influence of food cues in their environment.

This project will make use of existing cohort data to:

  • develop better measures of food environment exposure that use marketing, retailing, and food retail location data to, and
  • explore individual differences in food environment responses based on psychological and genetic markers.

Social environment, diet and well-being across the lifespan

(PI: Dr Catherine Paquet)

Our social life plays a critical role in the way we behave and in our health. As we get older, social networks tend to decrease in size, which puts us at risk of being socially isolated. Social isolation has been consistently associated with worst health outcomes including risk of malnutrition, as well as poor physical and mental health. The aim of the project is to investigate community-level factors and/or interventions that either promote or reduce the risk of social isolation in older people, and their nutritional and health impact. This project will make use of existing cohort data with a potential to contribute to a community-level intervention.

Ensuring healthy people in healthy places

(PI: Associate Professor Craig Williams)

Healthy environments provide the foundations for human health. Through studies of both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and human environments, the determinants of human health are investigated in order to develop novel public health interventions. Particular areas of focus are human environs, medical entomology, invertebrate biodiversity, and aquatic system health. Citizen science is also employed as an overarching approach to research that connects, empowers and educates.

Linking health and substances with abuse potential through wastewater

(PI: Dr Cobus Gerber)

Substance abuse is linked to mental health, antisocial behaviour, risk taking and crime. The economic burden of substance abuse on health is estimated to be several billions of dollars. The focus of this project is to determine the scale of drug use through wastewater analysis. Wastewater can be considered a pooled urine sample. Since compounds with abuse potential are taken by an individual, metabolised and excreted into the sewer system, wastewater can be considered a reliable resource to find evidence of drug use. This study approach has become known as Wastewater-Based Epidemiology (WBE). 

Through the project, methods have been developed to isolate trace amounts of drug residues or their metabolites from wastewater. These range from illicit drugs to alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceuticals with abuse potential. Updated methods are constantly required as new substances appear internationally. Our longitudinal studies reveal spatial and temporal changes in drug use across Australia and form the basis for frequent reports for government agencies which inform policy and interventions. Dr Cobus Gerber and Professor Jason White work with a team of researchers and postgraduate students to expand the application of wastewater analysis and determine new ways to approach problems. The analytical methods are based on extraction techniques, chromatography and mass-specific detection. The expertise required in our field can be diverse, relating to analytical chemistry, drug metabolism (pharmacokinetics), pharmacology, database management and statistics, to name a few.