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Scientists Link Health and Climate Change at National Meeting

By Eddy Ball
February 2008

NIEHS Fellow and lead author Julia Gohlke
NIEHS Fellow and lead author Julia Gohlke. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Visiting Fellow Melissa Chan, co-author of the study
Visiting Fellow Melissa Chan, co-author of the study (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On January 16 the National Council for Science and the Environment convened its the Climate Change: Science and Solutions conference in Washington, D.C. The NIEHS was a sponsor for the meeting and had representatives on hand as participants (see text box). Three of the Institute's scientists from the Laboratory of Molecular Toxicology were also there to present NIEHS-funded research at the poster session and contribute a public health perspective to the proceedings.

At the conference, fellows Julia Gohlke, Ph.D., and Melissa Chan, Ph.D., joined co-author and NIEHS Director of the Office of Risk Assessment Research Chris Portier, Ph.D., for the presentation of a poster abstract titled "A Systems Approach for Bridging the Gap between Human Health Research and Climate Change Research." Their work addressed the emerging theme of human health and well being impacts of climate change and furthered one of the major goals of the conference - guiding and fostering multi-disciplinary research.

As lead author Gohlke explained, "Current discussions of climate change emphasize the need to reduce greenhouse gases based on rising sea levels and increased temperatures, yet the full global public health impacts of these climatic shifts are rarely considered. Our research is intended to demonstrate a better informed, holistic approach to risk assessment."

What Gohlke, Chan and Portier presented were findings based on the systems approach that is increasingly a part of environmental health sciences research. The systems approach assumes a whole-organism, or in this case a global perspective and attempts to define the interactions within a network. The systems approach is especially suited to the integration of different disciplines and is typified by extensive laboratory and field measurement, data mining and modeling.

In its abstract, the NIEHS team argued for revising the conventional approach to human health research, which emphasizes molecular and cellular model systems, genetic determinants and therapeutic solutions to disease. They proposed expanding the model explicitly to include all environmental determinants - social, ecosystem and physical factors - in an assessment of risk. In the case of climate change, this expanded model would include health issues beyond heat- and cold-related mortality, such as social disruption due to water and food security problems, changing crop yields and changing ranges of vectors for infectious disease.

In a meta-analysis of data from the World Health Organization, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the European Commission's ExternE Project, the team compared estimated mortality attributed to various energy sources, such as oil, which has the greatest impact on climate change, coal, which is linked to 90 percent of mortality associated with electricity-generation, and biomass, the cooking fuel widely used in developing countries and linked to respiratory diseases.

Mary Gant is shown at the December 6 National Toxicology Program Board of Scientific Counselors' meeting.
Mary Gant is shown at the December 6 National Toxicology Program Board of Scientific Counselors' meeting. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)
Sharon Hrynkow delivered a December 14 Frontiers of Environmental Sciences Lecture on gender, equity and environmental health, one of several research priorities that relate to global environmental health and climate change.
Sharon Hrynkow delivered a December 14 Frontiers of Environmental Sciences Lecture on gender, equity and environmental health, one of several research priorities that relate to global environmental health and climate change. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

According to the abstract, however desirable reducing oil and coal emissions might be for long-term global health, the continued use of traditional biomass poses an even greater short-term risk to human health. If traditional biomass were replaced with coal-fired power plants, the increase of approximately 96,000 deaths associated with outdoor pollution and climate change annually would be substantially offset by the elimination of the 1,497,000 deaths each year attributed to use of traditional biomass, primarily in indoor cooking - a net savings of 1.4 million lives.

The researchers emphasized, however, that the long-term health impacts of climate change are likely to increase dramatically if no mitigation strategy is employed.

The researchers argued that a global systems perspective is needed for a balanced assessment of risk related to environmental threats. In contrast to previous energy policies developed without consideration of health impacts, the scientists concluded that "health endpoints in a social as well as ecological context must be considered as energy policies are developed to mitigate the effects of climate change."

Increasing the NIEHS Presence in Efforts to Address Climate Change

Along with a poster presentation at the Climate Change: Science and Solutions Conference, NIEHS Associate Director Sharon Hrynkow, Ph.D., was on hand to represent the Institute with potential partners in efforts to address climate change. Hrynkow, who is the former acting director of the Fogarty International Center, is a key player in NIEHS global health initiatives and a vocal advocate of addressing social issues, including gender, in environmental health sciences research and programs. She has been assigned by Acting Director Sam Wilson, M.D., to serve as the Institute's point person on issues related to global warming and climate change.

According to Hrynkow, this year the Institute joined six other federal agencies in helping to sponsor the conference. "NIEHS is taking stock of its current programs in the climate change arena," she explained. "This conference afforded us a critical opportunity to talk about some of our current work and to gain new insights and partners as we consider the next best steps on the climate change issue."

Bethesda-based NIEHS Program Analyst Mary Gant was a member of the 2008 Conference Advisory Committee and moderated a session on Climate Change and Public Health on January 17. The public health experts at that session reflected on the critical need to mitigate the impact of adverse weather events and other sequelae of climate change and suggested ways of adapting to the negative implications of climate change.

Also representing NIEHS at the meeting was Allen Dearry, Ph.D., associate director, Division of Research Coordination, Planning and Translation.

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