UNHEALTHY ENVIRONMENT: The U.S. is already suffering the effects of rising seas, changes in patterns of flooding and drought, heat waves, shifts in the strength of hurricanes and storms and worsening air quality, according to a government report. Image: ISTOCKPHOTO/babyblueut
Climate change is already affecting the nation's public health, according to a new multi-agency report released by the Obama administration. It urges federal agencies to adapt their research and policies to limit future suffering.
"Climate change endangers human health, affecting all sectors of society, both domestically and globally," the report says.
While much of the research into the health effects of climate shifts has focused on developing nations, the new analysis argues that the United States is already suffering the effects of rising seas, changes in patterns of flooding and drought, heat waves, shifts in the strength of hurricanes and storms and worsening air quality.
"As the recent pandemic of H1N1 virus has shown us, diseases do not respect international boundaries," the report says. "Climate change can be a driver for disease migration, but even so, such diseases do not represent the broadest range of possible, or even likely, human health effects of climate change."
Compiled by federal health and environment agencies, the analysis aims to identify research the federal government should undertake to prepare for the health effects of climate change.
"Prevention is the absolute best policy," said the report's lead author, Christopher Portier, senior science adviser to the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. "Understanding how climate change is going to affect our health is going to help us choose adaptation strategies and mitigations that not only alleviate or prevent some effects of climate change, but will also potentially enhance human health."
Portier said reducing the use of fossil fuels will reduce not just emissions of greenhouse gases, which drive warming, but also particulate matter and other pollutants that factor in many conditions that are among the leading causes of death in the United States, including heart and lung illnesses and cancer.
"If we can act on our energy policy by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, the result may well be a net protection of human health," he said.
The report produced by Portier and his colleagues at several federal agencies outlines a wide-ranging list of potential health impacts of climate change. They include everything from worsening allergies and asthma, as warming temperatures lengthen growing seasons, to worsening mental health, as Americans cope with more extreme weather events and, in some cases, are forced to move from their communities in response to climate shifts.
And dwindling fresh water supplies for drinking, agriculture, manufacturing and other uses are "becoming a pressing issue," especially in Western and Southern states, the report says.
Because some amount of climate change is unavoidable, based on the current level of greenhouse gases already present in the atmosphere, the report urges the federal government to begin examining how it can address some expected side effects of climate change.
"Given the likely changes that will occur in precipitation patterns, temperature and extreme weather events, adapting the ways in which we store, treat and use water will be key to avoiding changes in water security," the report says. "Similarly, food sources -- whether they be crops, livestock, marine or freshwater -- will be under greater stress in various parts of the United States."