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Toll Of Climate Change On Human Health Addressed During Summit Hosted By UCLA School Of Public Health

Californians are advised to add "severe weather" preparedness to their earthquake plans in order to prevent human casualties associated with climate change
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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Preparedness was a recurrent theme during a panel discussion hosted by the UCLA School of Public Health on the potential impact changes in climate could have on people's health.  More than 300 people attended the Climate Change Summit, where climate change and environmental health experts provided insight on ways climate change such as rising temperatures and severe weather-related events could increase the rates of water- and food-borne illness, infectious diseases, illnesses caused by air pollution, and heat-related illness and death.  The panelists discussed what individuals, the public health community, and state and local government can do to put in place preparedness plans to prevent weather-related illness and mortality.  

In California, where temperatures are expected to increase by 3-12 degrees by the year 2100, according to a report from the California Climate Change Center, longer, more frequent and more severe heat conditions will adversely affect people’s capacity to work, especially among those who labor outdoors.  Agricultural and construction workers in particular will be at increased risk for heat strain, mental fatigue, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, explained Dr. Tord Kjellstrom, an environmental and occupational epidemiologist with 35 years of experience in health hazards related to transportation and climate change.

"Climate change is a reality and the consequences for human health are being realized and will only worsen without decisive action," said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA School of Public Health.  "The School of Public Health convened many of the top thinkers and researchers in the world to launch a public dialogue on the effects that climate change will have on human health and what can be done."

Dr. Jonathan Patz, associate professor of Environmental Studies and Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pointed out that higher temperatures and drier weather would lead to higher concentrations of CO2, increasing the levels of allergens.  The public health community anticipates that this will result in higher rates of asthma, particularly in large urban centers such as Los Angeles, where pollution may rise by 75 to 85 percent, according to some climate change scenarios. 

Forecasts also indicate that climate change will affect water distribution worldwide, making dry places drier and wet places wetter.  Flooding increases the risk of water contamination, tainting fish and shellfish supplies for human consumption.  Changes in precipitation patterns and changes in the onset of winter and spring seasons are also anticipated to alter the geographic distribution of plants and insects.  These effects, combined with other human activities such as deforestation, logging, and road building, could dramatically affect the range and severity of outbreaks of existing infectious diseases (e.g. West Nile virus and Malaria) and result in the emergence of new infectious agents that threaten human health.  

Nathan Wolfe, professor of epidemiology in the UCLA School of Public Health, discussed how the school is playing a lead role in developing the technology and establishing the infrastructure to monitor and prevent the spread of infectious diseases worldwide.  He also provided examples of how human activity has resulted in the emergence of new infectious diseases in Africa, and discussed current efforts to monitor and prevent the spread of future outbreaks.

Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), urged the public health community to focus on increased tracking of human diseases, monitoring of harmful algal blooms that could threaten beach and shellfish safety and enhanced identification of geographic areas that are vulnerable to water quantity and quality problems. "Just as Californians know what to do in the event of an earthquake, people now need to learn what to do to prepare for global warming," she added.

Dr. Solomon outlined a number of actions that would not only offset the impact of climate change but also protect human health, such as: 1) increasing water-use efficiency, 2) limiting development in areas like wetlands or areas that are vulnerable to fires, floods and landslides; 3) creating nature reserves designed to accommodate future climate changes and migrations of plants and animals; 4) reducing the impact of urban heat island syndrome; and 5) using permeable pavements so that storm water runoff can be used to recharge groundwater systems.

Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, outlined strategies being developed by the State of California to reduce global warming emissions in response to the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006.  The Air Resources Board is pursuing 37 early actions for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, ranging from developing a Low Carbon Fuel Standard and creating systems that track refrigerants to developing guidance and protocols to help local governments reduce GHG emissions.

The Summit also included a discussion by J.R. DeShazo, UCLA professor of public policy and social research, regarding the role that California’s current efforts to reduce the impact of climate change are likely to play in the development of federal regulation. 

"We would like people to gain a realistic understanding of the challenges California will face as a result of climate change and a concrete sense of how we can work together to lessen the resulting human suffering," said Hilary Godwin, professor and  chair of the UCLA Department of Environmental Health Sciences.  "By engaging the general public and scientific community in these discussions, our goal is to empower the individuals attending this summit with an understanding of what they can personally do to benefit human health and the environment."

For more information on the Climate Change Summit, please visit: www.ph.UCLA.edu/climatechange

The UCLA School of Public Health is dedicated to enhancing the public's health by conducting innovative research; training future leaders and health professionals; translating research into policy and practice; and serving local, national and international communities. For more information, visit www.ph.UCLA.edu.