Earth Institute Profiles

Patrick Kinney

Associate Professor, Mailman School of Public Health

Patrick Kinney

The New York metropolitan area and the far reaches of Kenya have benefited equally from Patrick Kinney’s work. Kinney believes that the harmony of all living things depends not only upon the well-being of people but on the health of the environment. His work is therefore motivated by the twin goals of improving public health while at the same time maintaining and restoring the earth’s natural systems.

Kinney is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. He is an air pollution epidemiologist who has published extensively on the human health effects of air pollution. Much of his ongoing research in these areas is being carried out in the context of two centers within his department: the Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan and the Columbia Children's Center.  Outside the Mailman School, he serves on the academic committee of the Earth Institute, the steering committee of the Columbia Climate Center, and the internal advisory committee of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

Prior to coming to Columbia, Kinney did research at the Harvard School of Public Health, where he examined the effects of ozone air pollution on lung function in children as part of the Harvard Six Cities Air Pollution and Health Study. Kinney has since executed numerous epidemiologic studies addressing the human health effects of air pollution, including studies of the effects of ozone and particulate matter on children's lung function and on daily mortality in large cities. Soon after coming to Columbia in 1994, Kinney began focusing on studying the extent to which poor and minority groups in NYC may bear a disproportionate burden of exposures and health impacts related to indoor and outdoor air pollution.  This work included  studies of indoor allergens, diesel vehicle emissions, volatile organic compounds, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and other air toxins.  Kinney's recent research has been directed at more global issues like the public health impacts of climate change and the global burden of disease related to cooking with wood and other biomass fuels.

Kinney designed and led the New York Climate and Health Project, which developed and applied an integrated modeling system for assessing potential future health effects of air quality and heat waves due to climate and land use change. This groundbreaking study resulted in a large number of journal articles and has been the foundation for what is now an expanding nationwide research agenda in this area.

According to Kinney, “The most important aspect of my current research is new work, which is directed at understanding the direct human health benefits (due to air pollution reductions) of alternative greenhouse gas mitigation strategies.” 

Kinney is working internationally as part of Columbia’s Biomass Working Group to assess the health impacts of the indoor combustion of biomass fuels for cooking in Kenya, Rwanda and Ghana. The results, he hopes, can “stimulate national programs to reduce smoke-related health impacts for women and children.” He also serves on the advisory committee of the Earth Institute’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development and participates in its Urban Planning, Air Quality, and Human Health in Developing World Cities Project, which assesses exposures and health effects of outdoor urban air pollution in the Nairobi, Kenya area, and the influence of alternative development patterns. Kinney juggles all of these initiatives, motivated by a desire “to generate and kindle the spark of excitement for learning and discovery in my students and colleagues, and myself.”

Kinney warns of the dangers of leaving the natural world behind while humans continue to progress with ignorance and apathy. “We should all be working to reduce human impacts on natural systems and at the same time improving the quality and health of our human environments,” he explains. Neglecting our planet would ultimately harm us. Unfortunately, “the biggest challenge I am facing as a researcher is the lack of U.S. federal leadership in funding climate change research.” On the other hand, climate change awareness is starting to pick up, so perhaps we will be on hand when we are called upon to clean up the earth.

Kinney received his M.S. in environmental health in 1982 and his doctorate from Harvard University in environmental science and physiology in 1986. When he has a couple minutes to spare, he can be found strumming his guitar, painting and biking. He also serves on his town’s board of trustees.