Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

David C. Wheeler, PhD


Environmental epidemiologists are increasingly interested in establishing causality between exposures and health outcomes. A popular model for causal inference is the Rubin Causal Model (RCM), which typically seeks to estimate the average difference in study units' potential outcomes. If the exposure Z is binary, then we may express this as E[Y(Z=1)-Y(Z=0)]. An important assumption under RCM is no interference; that is, the potential outcomes of one unit are not affected by the exposure status of other units. The no interference assumption is violated if we expect spillover or diffusion of exposure effects based on units' proximity to other units and several other causal estimands arise. For example, if we consider the effect of other study units on a unit in an adjacency matrix A, then we may estimate a direct effect, E[Y(Z=1,A)-Y(Z=0,A)], and a spillover effect, E[Y(Z,A)=Y(Z,A`)]. This thesis presents novel methods for estimating causal effects under interference. We begin by outlining the potential outcomes framework and introducing the assumptions necessary for causal inference with no interference. We present an association study that assesses the relationship of animal feeding operations (AFOs) on groundwater nitrate in private wells in Iowa, USA. We then place the relationship in a causal framework where we estimate the causal effects of AFO placement on groundwater nitrate using propensity score-based methods. We proceed to causal inference with interference, which we motivate with examples from air pollution epidemiology where upwind events may affect downwind locations. We adapt assumptions for causal inference in social networks to causal inference with spatially structured interference. We then use propensity score-based methods to estimate both direct and spillover causal effects. We apply these methods to estimate the causal effects of the Environmental Protection Agency’s nonattainment regulation for particulate matter on lung cancer incidence in California, Georgia, and Kentucky using data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. As an alternative causal method, we motivate use of wind speed as an instrumental variable to define principal strata based on which study units are experiencing interference. We apply these methods to estimate the causal effects of air pollution on asthma incidence in the San Diego, California, USA region using data from the 500 Cities Project. All our methods are proposed in a Bayesian setting. We conclude by discussing the contributions of this thesis and the future of causal analysis in environmental epidemiology.


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Available for download on Friday, March 22, 2024