The Heat Is Online

Harvard Medical School Adds New Health Risks to Warming

Harvard Finds Kidney Stones, Malaria Among Global-Warming Risks, Nov. 20, 2009


Kidney stones, malaria, Lyme disease, depression and respiratory illness all may increase with global warming, researchers at Harvard Medical School said.

Climate change from the burning of fossil fuels will add to risks to public health, said Paul Epstein, associate director of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment in Boston. The center and groups led by the American Medical Association are presenting data at a briefing today in Washington as a call for action to curb emissions.

Power-plant emissions and deforestation have contributed to a 1.4-degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperatures, an increase that could reach 8.1 degrees by the end of the century, the United Nations said in a 2007 report. Warming causes flooding, heat waves and wildfires that worsen health, especially for children and the elderly, according to the Harvard researchers.

“We expect an increase in hospital admissions for things like pneumonia, chronic lung disease, asthma and other respiratory diseases,” Cecil Wilson, president-elect of the American Medical Association, said yesterday in an interview. “Increased heat also increases the risk to people who have other diseases.”

The Chicago-based AMA, the largest U.S. doctor’s group, sent a letter to President Barack Obama this week citing the “significant public health impacts” of climate change, Wilson said. The Nov. 17 letter said children, the elderly, people suffering from chronic diseases and the poor will be most affected.


Senate Action


Obama has backed climate-change legislation in Congress. The House passed a measure in June that aims to cut greenhouse- gas emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. The Senate isn’t going to attempt action on a climate bill until “sometime in the spring,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said this week.

Obama and other leaders at an Asia-Pacific conference this week agreed a binding global-warming accord is out of reach at next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen. Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, predicted yesterday at the UN that a treaty will be completed by June.

With today’s briefing preceding the Copenhagen conference, “we are hopeful that meeting will embody some of the concerns about health,” Wilson said.

The Harvard center’s findings incorporate original research as well as previously published studies from other sources, Epstein said. He contributed to the work of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

“This is a big deal getting these organizations to come out on climate change,” Epstein said in an interview. “This lays the groundwork for further action.”

Warmer in Indiana

Climate change is making Indiana warmer, raising the risk of kidney stones because of low urine volume linked to heat exposure, according to a study cited by the Harvard center. By 2050 southern Indiana will fall into the high-risk zone for kidney stones and by 2100, the entire state will.

The portion of the U.S. population in high-risk zones for kidney stones will grow from 40 percent in 2000 to 56 percent by 2050, and to 70 percent by 2095, researchers at the University of Texas said in a 2008 study. Costs associated with the increase would be $900 million to $1.3 billion a year, 25 percent more than current expenditures.

Warmer temperatures in New Mexico are contributing to the proliferation of mountain pine beetles, a pest that has killed 6.5 million acres of trees in the U.S., setting the stage for wildfires, according to the Harvard findings. Fires release air pollutants and cancer-causing chemicals, raising the risk of respiratory illness and lung disease.

Children Outdoors

Climate change also increases air pollutants such as ozone and sulfur dioxide, raising the risk of asthma, especially in children, said Jerome Paulson, medical director at the Washington-based Child Health Advocacy Institute.

“Kids who are involved in outdoor activities in areas with more air pollution are more likely to develop asthma,” Paulson said in an interview.

Paulson and Wilson will be joined at the briefing today by Nancy Hugues, director of the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Center for Occupational and Environmental Health of the American Nurses Association and Kim Knowlton, head of the climate change and health committee of the Washington-based American Public Health Association.

 The Harvard center also found climate change will increase deaths from heat waves, raise the incidence of waterborne diseases and spread afflictions such as Lyme disease and malaria. Dislocation and job losses spurred by changing climate may contribute to depression and anxiety disorders, the researchers said.