By Sarah Avery
News and Observer
The health risks of global climate change read like a chapter out of the Book of Revelation: plagues from mosquitoes and other insects; floods and droughts that cause sickness and mental anguish; food-borne scourges and malnutrition.
In a report released recently by federal scientists, led by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, the wide-reaching health problems associated with climate change were laid out to help government officials decide where they should spend research dollars.
Christopher Portier, lead author of the study and a mathematical statistician at the NIEHS, said the magnitude of the health problems, some of which are already occurring, requires unified approach among the nation’s health agencies. The National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, are leading the way.
“Everybody understands about malaria moving north and dengue fever moving north, and that is getting support. But other things like cancer and mental health – those have received less attention,” Portier said.
Most of the world’s scientists consider climate change a man-made phenomenon, Portier said. Evidence indicates it is caused by industrial pollutants, including carbon dioxide and other gas emissions from power plants, factories and vehicles, which trap heat in the atmosphere to alter normal climate patterns.
Some scientists and members of the public have questioned the phenomenon, but Portier said debate now principally centers on the magnitude of events and how soon they might occur.
“That the Earth’s climate is changing is not really a debate in the scientific community, it’s more a debate in the popular press,” Portier said.
Cost of inaction
Other scientists not involved in the study agreed and noted that failing to plan for the inevitable health consequences would be both harmful and expensive.
“What is not well understood by many people is that there is this economic connection between what we do or don’t do now, and how these things will play out in the future,” said Randall Kramer, a professor of environmental economics at Duke University. “There are economic and health consequences of the many different paths we might take.”
Hurricane Katrina provided a lesson about the costly health problems climate change might inflict, Portier said. Although it’s not clear the disaster was related to climate change, it has served as a model for the scope of catastrophic storms that scientists anticipate will increase as the planet warms.
Among the immediate problems were injuries, flood-related diseases and infections. But depression and mental trauma were also major concerns as people were uprooted from their homes for months, even years, he said. Understanding how to treat and ease such issues will be important.
“Extreme weather events create tremendous stress,” Portier said. “If we see more extreme weather events – flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes – we need to understand what effects those have on populations and at least try to reduce them.”
Among other issues are crop disruptions that could result in food shortages, challenges to keeping food fresh and free of disease-causing bugs, and new exposures to cancer-causing toxins.
Spread of disease
Some health problems associated with climate change are already becoming evident, the NIEHS report says. The geographic range of viral, bacterial and fungal infections is shifting, for example, as pathogens now find fertile ground in once inhospitable regions.
West Nile virus, Lyme disease and malaria are all carried by insects that have moved into new territories. Just recently, scientists have questioned whether warming trends in the Pacific Northwest might be responsible for cases of a deadly airborne fungus that has spread into Washington and Oregon.
“Let’s be clear – climate change is not going to cause any new diseases,” Portier said. “It’s simply going to alter the frequency of disease in the population. All of these things are already there. In some cases it will lower disease rates, and in other cases it will raise them. The problem is, we aren’t sure yet. The linkage between climate change and health needs more research.”