The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Breathe Easy

Putting a price tag on pollution
  • UMass Amherst resource economist Sylvia Brandt in her office.

Part of Brandt's research focuses on quantifying the true costs of asthma among youth in Springfield, Massachusetts and developing policy solutions to help address the problems associated with asthma-related illness.

From California to Chile, and places in between, pollution-attributable asthma continues to impact the lives of children and families. Drawing ties between urbanization, socioeconomics, and asthma prevalence, UMass Amherst resource economist Sylvia Brandt turns to urban communities to investigate rising asthma rates among youth.

Brandt’s research-based advocacy focused on asthma among urban youth has impacted local, national, and global communities. In her work she specializes in determining the cost of pollution for families in urban communities through market valuation and hands-on fieldwork. With a passion for social justice, Brandt is conducting research that reveals correlations between race, socioeconomic status, and the burden of illness.

“If you’re low income, live in an urban area, and are of color, you’re much more likely to be exposed to higher levels of exposure due to environmental pollution, than if you don’t have those characteristics,” Brandt says. 

Brandt’s research on childhood asthma has been published widely including in the European Respiratory Journal, Journal of Family and Economic Issues, American Journal of Public Health, Pediatrics and Value in Health. She takes an interdisciplinary approach to her work and collaborates with a wide array of health professionals including doctors at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, epidemiologists at the Swiss Institute of Tropical Diseases and the University of California Berkley, and public health specialists among others.

Brandt’s most cited work to date is a comparative study between pollution and asthma levels in two cities in California - Long Beach and Riverside. A collaboration with researchers at the University of Southern California, Costs of Childhood Asthma Due to Traffic-Related Pollution in Two California Communities was selected as one of the top research papers of 2012 by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Brandt and her colleagues estimate that in these two communities, asthma associated with air pollution costs a total of $18 million a year, or approximately $4,000 per household.

As a resource economist, Brandt works to add monetary value to the intangible. Closer to home, her research focuses on quantifying the true costs of asthma among youth in Springfield, Massachusetts and developing policy solutions to help address the problems associated with asthma-related illness. Brandt reaches out to individual families dealing with asthma as a touchstone for her research. By visiting households and interviewing the parents of children with asthma, Brandt is able to better understand what asthma means in their daily lives. Brandt’s research on the monetary value of the impacts of asthma, published in Value in Health and funded by the U.S. EPA, can be used by regulators to estimate the benefits of cleaner air.

One of Brandt’s findings is that for many of the surveyed households, at least one of the caregivers has been fired, laid off, or was forced to quit their job due to the severity of their child’s asthma. On average, Brandt estimates that this burden of illness costs between 7 and 8 percent of a family’s median income, as a combined product of lost wages from work and the costs of asthma treatment.

Brandt cites increased urbanization and proximity to major roadways as major causes for high rates of asthma in these urban communities. The proximity of schools and playgrounds to major roadways also plays an integral role in amplifying the effect of asthma within these urban environments.

“We know that exposure to traffic-related pollution not only exacerbates asthma if you have asthma, but it also creates asthma,” Brandt says.

Brandt has proposed policy solutions such as installing air filtration systems, retrofitting school buses, and changing zoning laws so schools are sited away from major roadways. She believes that economics is a powerful tool for gathering evidence and that often, the voice of an economist is influential in a policy setting.

In a project further afield, Brandt is working with UMass Amherst graduate student Andrea Lucia Vergara Sobrazo to extend similar studies to urban centers in Chile. Brandt refers to the Chilean communities covered in Sobrazo’s cross-cultural fieldwork as ‘uncharted territories’ that have not been studied within this context. Felipe Antonio Vasquez, a professor at Universidad de Desarollo and a frequent collaborator of Brandt’s, is collecting ground-level data for the research project.

Brandt’s passion for resource economics and public policy sprung from a desire to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives. Holding a joint appointment in both resource economics and public policy, Brandt connects economic outcomes to ways in which policymakers can improve public welfare. Throughout this interdisciplinary and collaborative work, she strives to cultivate the next generation of researchers who recognize the importance and value of integrating fieldwork into their research plans.

“No one paper is going to shape policy…but what I do see is that the frontier in research is truly integrative, collaborative research,” Brandt says.

Diana Alsabe ‘15