The Heat Is Online

CDC: Climate Change is "Largest Looming Health" Threat

CDC: Climate change a health threat, Dec. 5, 2006


ATLANTA, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- The "rising scientific certainty" of climate change should mobilize environmental health professionals to take aggressive action, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director said at a meeting here Monday.


"Climate change is perhaps the largest looming public health challenge we face, certainly in the environmental health field," Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, told United Press International in an interview.


In the past year, climate change has reached a tipping point, in which many of the climate change predictions have become alarming, said Frumkin, who spoke at the opening session of the 2006 National Environmental Public Health Conference in Atlanta.


Glacier movement and melting has advanced faster than predicted, the species extinction rate is increasing and Hurricane Katrina has served as a wake-up call to the mounting severity of tropical storms, according to Frumkin.


The level of carbon dioxide, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, has leapt from 280 parts per billion to 380 parts per billion in the past 150 years, "absolutely unprecedented in the history of the Earth," Frumkin said. The average temperature has crept up two degrees Farenheit over the past century, and sea levels have risen at least a few centimeters.


Still, no one knows the exact details of climate change, and how fast it will occur, Frumkin acknowledged.


"But given credible indications there is a danger there, we need to act to protect people from that danger. It's standard public health practice," said Frumkin.


Even if carbon dioxide emissions were to stop completely today, the effects would reverberate for decades to come, leaving health experts with a formidable obstacle -- how to protect populations from the harm of climate change today and in the future.


Perhaps the most potent effect of climate change is heat waves; a 2003 heat wave in Europe took up to 30,000 lives, and that's only an estimate. Among other health impacts:


--Storms and coastal flooding from sea level rise could contribute to mortality and dislocation of residents.

--Infectious diseases, especially vector-borne illnesses such as malaria, are expected to spike as tropical ecosystems expand with the changing climate.

--Hotter air will create more air pollutants, particularly ozone, which can create respiratory problems in people.

--Food insecurity from shifting agricultural zones could lead to civil strife and conflict.


Frumkin also worries about mental health, particularly of children: What is the impact this gloomy news will have on kids growing up in such a precarious world?


But for all its despondency, climate change is also a "teacher" for those in environmental health, as officials must grapple with responding to climate change both locally and nationally. Environmental health experts can approach climate change through adaptive policies, for example by changing agricultural practices in areas prone to climate shifts, making community plans for heat waves and controlling for vector-borne disease.


Part of that involves "thinking the unthinkable," said Frumkin. He drew a comparison to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when the country was able to regroup and tackle a seemingly hopeless problem. Today, environmental health experts must envision a more sustainable world, while realizing people will have to rethink lifestyle behaviors and profligate energy use if any success is to be made.


Other experts at the meeting included climate change as a pivotal topic. Carol Henry, vice president of science and research at the American Chemistry Council, an organization representing more than 130 chemistry companies, said "industry is part of the issue" as it relates to climate change and "wants a vital role" in dealing with it.


Between 2003 and 2004, according to Henry, greenhouse gas intensity from ACC companies fell by 8.6 percent due to voluntary controls on emissions.


Henry also said there's an "insufficient public health infrastructure" to remedy many of the environmental problems facing the nation today.

Robert Blake, president-elect of the National Environmental Health Association, said environmental health practices have become outmoded and invisible to the public, and that a more holistic, system-wide approach is needed.


Local health experts and officials need direction on climate change, too, Blake said. To that end, NEHA has started a committee to educate members on climate change, he said.


"Climate change provides a possibility for environmental health leaders, and we need to step up to the challenge," Blake said.

CDC Director Julie Gerberding also echoed Frumkin's sentiments, emphasizing the need to tackle climate change even amid its intimidating complexity.


"I'm going to try to use the word 'climate change' in every speech I give," Gerberding said.


The CDC also plans to convene expert workshops in January 2007 to explore approaches to adapting to climate change, Frumkin said.

Although it may be tempting to recoil from such a major task, "we still have a calling, to relieve suffering and do the right thing. If my patient has a terminal diagnosis, I stay with the patient and see things through," Frumkin said.


"That ought to motivate us in public health to roll up our sleeves and work on the climate change issue."


© Copyright 2006 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.