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Human Health Impacts of Climate Change Demand Attention

Human health challenges as a result of global warming range from injuries after more intense storms to toxic algal blooms
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When they picture the adverse effects of climate change, public health scientists hope the American public won't think of them as something that happens to glaciers or polar bears, but turn the focus more on themselves.

"The face of climate change ought to be people," epidemiologist George Luber, associate director for global climate change at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview last week. "We ought to kind of internalize it."

Luber and Natural Resources Defense Council scientist Kim Knowlton took the lead in writing the human health chapter for the draft 2013 National Climate Assessment, which was released last month and is now open for public comment (Greenwire, Jan. 11). The report, which is the third of its kind, lays out the impacts climate change will have on the United States, including on its citizens' health.

While past reports focused on the future, the 2013 edition shows "it's already happening now," said Luber, speaking on the sidelines of a two-day symposium he helped organize, which was co-hosted by CDC and the National Institutes of Health.

Some of those effects are easily identified, like the injuries and loss of life that result from more frequent and intense storms. Others are more subtle, like loss of power after a storm that may expose a region to extreme heat from lack of air conditioning, the cumulative effect from more allergies due to higher pollen counts, and the introduction of new diseases from warmer climes that Luber said are already popping up in unlikely places.

"Those can be surprises," he said.

Toxic fish and disease-carrying air
Over the past eight years, for example, fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico have begun to be poisoned by ciguatera derived from toxins in algae that are more common in the tropics but that now thrive in the Gulf's warming waters, clinging to oil rigs.

Soggy Vancouver Island in British Columbia has become an unlikely new home for Cryptococcus gattii, a tropical and subtropical yeast-based fungus that causes lung disease and a kind of meningitis when it is inhaled. Scientists think the fungus hitched a ride in ballast water from ships and was able to survive in the northwest because of higher temperatures.

The symposium, which was held at Department of Health and Human Services headquarters on Wednesday and Thursday, brought together climate and health researchers from academia with state and local public health administrators from states that have received funding from CDC and NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to look at the local health effects of climate change to find ways to minimize them.

"What we're doing is bringing the researchers into the same room as the people who are doing the public health response," Luber said.

Participants at the meeting heard from panelists on issues like the effects of climate change on the inner city, managing heat exposure in the rural South and the lack of air conditioning in Washington state nursing homes.

Simon Mason of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society said climate scientists needed to better understand what information public health administrators need in order to keep populations safe.

For example, he said, there are plenty of data about weather patterns now and what they are likely to be many decades from now, but that may not help a city or state plan for changes in the midterm.

A near-term void in health science
"Predicting the next 10 years, that's still pretty much of a data loss," he said.

Luber said the intersection of health and climate science is as complex as it is new. Systems are still being developed to allow researchers to look at disease occurrence in the context of weather data and to see how they interact. "That's not easy," he said.

CDC's climate and health program started in 2009, though Luber laid the groundwork for it on his own beginning in 2005. Its work began with a focus on science but has expanded to helping state and local health officials integrate climate change into their other operations. It now funds programs in 16 states and two cities.

The program took off under the Obama administration, but Luber said it has more to do with the state of science than the state of politics. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report established that man-made global warming was happening, which required health scientists to take it seriously.

Luber dismissed the continued debate over climate science in the political sphere.

"The whole dialogue about climate deniers, that's irrelevant to me," he said. "I look at the science, and if somebody is a denier, they should look at the science, too."

Knowlton of NRDC, who worked with Luber and a team of contributing health scientists to write the chapter last year, said it was intended to educate the American public, including policymakers.

"The effort is intensely policy-relevant, but it can't be policy prescriptive," she said. While the assessment will help lawmakers have a clearer sense of the state of the science on climate and health, she said, it makes no policy recommendations.

But Knowlton was not shy about advocating for funding for climate and public health programs, which are expected to face tighter budgets in the coming years.

"The budget is at risk on this issue, at a time when both exposures and vulnerability is increasing," she said. "It benefits all of us to support that in the strongest possible way."

Some of these proposed reductions are coming from the White House itself. The president's budget for fiscal 2013 asked for only $4.8 million for CDC's climate change programs, down from $7.4 million the previous year. The budget is yet to be acted on by Congress.

HHS' climate-related programs are one example of a larger push by federal agencies to make strides on climate change adaptation and mitigation in the absence of action from Congress. Capitol Hill is expected to produce little or no climate-related legislation this Congress, but Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.) has said she plans to reintroduce a bill soon that she sponsored in the 111th Congress to establish a strategy at HHS for addressing the public health effects of climate change.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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