Climate changes have jeopardized human health in the past, and are bound to do so again. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, for example, led to many illnesses and deaths from breathing difficulties and malnutrition, and prompted westward migrations of people vying for scarce food, shelter, and work.
Future severe climate changes will likewise have major public health ramifications. Following a request from Gov. Christine Gregoire, Washington State Department of Health and University of Washington health researchers are analyzing the likely effects of climate change on the state over the next century. Their group is called the Climate Change and Human Health Impacts Team, and goes by the acronym CHIT.
Their assessments will be based on scenarios developed by the UW Climate Impacts Group, an interdisciplinary research effort to discern the effects on the Pacific Northwest of natural climate shifts as well as global warming. The findings on potential health effects will be presented to the governor and the state legislature. The researchers will recommend how to manage and mitigate, and perhaps prevent, anticipated public health problems.
This study is part of a broader project funded by the Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development and directed by Dr. Edward L. Miles, the Bloedel Professor of Marine Studies and Public Affairs at the UW. The project, which has been funded for two years, is called "A Comprehensive Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change on the State of Washington." Alongside public health, project teams will examine other areas vital to the life and livelihood of the state. These include agriculture, coasts, estuaries, and harbors; energy and hydroelectric power; forests, hydrology and water resources; salmon and ecosystems, and civil engineering infrastructures.
"Problems related to climate change in any of these areas could affect human health," said Dr. Roger Rosenblatt, professor of family medicine and head of CHIT, "because the issues we are considering are interrelated." He gave as an example the higher incidence of wildfires expected from global warming. Many people would be at risk for developing lung and heart problems from smoke and poor air quality caused by the fires, he said.
Rosenblatt mentioned that there are many studies about the consequences of climate change on natural resources, but few researchers have looked at the issues from the public health point of view. Bringing together earth scientists and medical scientists is essential for this to happen.
"We need to have better information on how the health of individuals and communities might be affected by what will inevitably happen if we continue on the present course, and what we as a society can do to lessen the threat to the human population," Rosenblatt said. "My hope is that if people understand the consequences for themselves personally and for their families, they may be motivated to work to reduce global warming. When individuals realize their own well-being is at stake, they become more interested in environmental issues like air pollution control and energy conservation."
The effects of climate change are anticipated to vary from one part of the world to another and from region to region in the United States. Global warming scenarios developed for Washington state forecast the possibilities of coastal erosion, a rise in sea level, flow of salt water into fresh water wells, higher temperatures, flooding from storms, poorer air and water quality, more forest fires, melting of mountain snow packs, and warming of streams. Climate refugees from other states and countries may attempt to move to Washington state if it remains one of the few places with tolerable conditions. The influx would swell the state's population and increase the demand on its public health and medical services.
CHIT will try to determine the types of health problems most likely to arise as a result of climate change in Washington state, which populations would be the most vulnerable, and what might be done to change the course of events. They will then look at the feasibility, effectiveness, and cost of potential interventions. They are working in partnership with the Human Health Preparation and Adaptation Work Group, chaired by Gregg Grunenfelder, assistant secretary for environmental health for the Washington State Department of Health.
A team led by Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, UW professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine and an expert on emerging diseases, will develop predictive models of the migration of disease-transmitting mammals, birds, insects, and parasites. Her team will forecast the speed of the spread of diseases such as malaria and West Nile Virus and their potential impact on Washington state. Dr. Katherine Carr, associate professor of family and child nursing and an expert on the effects of pollution on children, is looking at air quality and potential increases in lung disease and heart disease. Dr. Rich Fenske, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, and director of the Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, will examine heat stroke and medical problems adults and children may experience in farming and ranching communities.
Gains that America and the world have made in public health could be swept away by climate change, according to Rosenblatt. Homo sapiens was a successful species after the last interglacial age, because the climate stabilized into one that was optimal for humans, Rosenblatt explained. A major climate shift in either direction, hot or cold, would take many people out of the range in which their bodies can perform normally and civilizations can thrive.
Another human characteristic, Rosenblatt pointed out, is that people are adept at addressing immediate emergencies, such as a bridge collapse or the appearance of SARS, but they are dismal at responding to slow-moving disasters such as global warming.
"Climate change is a large train moving at us at a slow and steady speed," Rosenblatt said, "We still have the opportunity to get off the tracks or stop the train."