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Group Issues White Paper on Climate Change

By Ed Kang
May 2010

Christopher Portier, Ph.D.
Portier, above, pinpoints the co-benefits of addressing climate change, including money saved by potential improvements in human health worldwide. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A report released April 21 by a federal working group led by NIH highlights 11 key categories of diseases and other health consequences that are occurring or will occur due to climate change (see text box). The report, "A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change,"(http://www.niehs.nih.gov/climatereport) provides a starting point for coordination of federal research to better understand climate's impact on human health. The recommendations of the working group include research to identify the most vulnerable populations and what efforts will be most beneficial.

Climatechang 2010 cover"This white paper articulates, in a concrete way, that human beings are vulnerable in many ways to the health effects of climate change," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, whose institute led the interagency effort. "It lays out both what we know and what we need to know about these effects in a way that will allow the health research community to bring its collective knowledge to bear on solving these problems."

The report also examines a number of cross-cutting issues for federal research in this area, including susceptible, vulnerable, and displaced populations; public health and health care infrastructure; capacities and skills needed; and communication and education efforts.

"Earth Day reminds us that changes in the environment are affecting our food, water, and our health," said Birnbaum. "This report provides a guide for researchers throughout the world who are working to improve the health of the planet and the health of all people."

"Increasingly, studies, including some co-funded by NIEHS, recently published in The Lancet, have shown us that by understanding how climate change, human health, and human activities intersect," said Howard Koh, M.D., assistant secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "we can prevent some of climate's worst impacts while providing huge benefits to human health that actually offset the costs of mitigation and adaptation. The white paper integrates these new data in a framework that is a new way of looking at this complex and critical problem."

The ad hoc Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health was formed following a 2009 Institute of Medicine Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine meeting on climate change. At the gathering, leaders from NIEHS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized that the scientific discussion around climate change needed to be reframed to emphasize the human health impacts and research needs to address them.

Led by NIEHS scientist Christopher Portier, Ph.D., membership of the working group also includes representatives from the NIH Fogarty International Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of State, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with support and input from the U.S. Global Change Research Program and others.

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Targeting Research Priorities

The white paper highlights the state-of-the-science on the human health consequences of climate change on:

  • Asthma, respiratory allergies, and airway diseases
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Foodborne diseases and nutrition
  • Heat-related morbidity and mortality
  • Human developmental effects
  • Mental health and stress-related disorders
  • Neurological diseases and disorders
  • Waterborne diseases
  • Weather-related morbidity and mortality
  • Vectorborne and zoonotic diseases (like malaria, which can be transmitted from animals to humans)


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