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Top medical groups warn Americans of health risks posed by climate change

Top medical and health experts came together Thursday to say climate change is hurting Americans now — and if we don’t act now its effects will only get worse. CAP’s Susan Lyon and Lee Hamill have the story (and audio).

The following top health and medical experts came together Thursday to alert us of the serious health threats posed by carbon pollution and to remind us of the necessity of the EPA in protecting our air, water, and health, on a briefing call hosted by the American Public Health Association (APHA):

  • Dr. Georges Benjamin, MD, FACP, and FACEP, the Executive Director of the American Public Health Association
  • Dr. Cecil Wilson, MD, President of the American Medical Association
  • Dr. Perry Sheffield, MD, MPH, Deputy Director of EPA Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit
  • Dr. Kristie L. Ebi, PhD, MPH, MS, lead author for the human health chapter of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report

Dr. Georges Benjamin of the APHA encouraged us to see how much progress we’ve made by just taking a look at old photos of the air and smog from a few decades ago:

Let me remind everyone why we have the Clean Air Act. Let me encourage everyone in the media to go back into your archives. And you don’t have to go back that far.

Dr. Wilson of the AMA reminded listeners of these very real health benefits of the Clean Air Act, which exceed costs by around a factor of 30 to 1:

These are real people, they’re not just numbers.

In one year alone, Dr. Wilson noted, the CAA was estimated to have prevented 18 million child respiratory illnesses; 850,000 asthma attacks; 674,000 chronic bronchitis, and 205,000 premature deaths.

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In light of recent attacks on the EPA in Hill hearings and proposed budget cuts, it is more important than ever to highlight and protect the ability of the EPA to do its job well. The U.S. government has recognized climate change as a public threat since 1995 and the Endangerment Finding was a critical step toward allowing the EPA to safeguard us from dangerous carbon pollution. But now, the 2011 Continuing Resolution blocks the EPA from doing its job, and recently introduced legislation is attacking the agency’s work as well.

The AMA Speaks Up for Our Health

Dr. Cecil Wilson explained the American Medical Association’s decision to get involved in defending the EPA as twofold. First, the AMA feels it is important to prepare physicians for dealing with the increase in climate-related illnesses they will have to treat. Second, he argued that the AMA should assume the role of advocating for better public health policies by serving as a role model, educating Americans, and engaging in the political process.

The involvement of the AMA on educating the public on these issues is noteworthy, as the organization has traditionally aligned itself conservatively on many health issues and has been skeptical of government intervention. It opposed Obama’s health care plan, Clinton’s health care plan, and the creation of Medicare before that with its ‘Operation Coffee Cup,’ and was hesitant to acknowledge the link between cigarettes and cancer.

The AMA now acknowledges that there is a clear consensus on climate change and that Americans and our government must act quickly to stabilize our climate and prepare for health impacts on the rise.

Vulnerable Populations

The experts also explained that with climate change will come both immediate and longer term health effects — not all of which are fully understood by the scientific community yet. Dr. Sheffield noted that climate,

will not only have different effects in different areas of the country, but different effects on different vulnerable groups.

From a regulatory perspective, we tend to focus on rulemaking for individual pollutants, but as Dr. Benjamin pointed out, from a functional perspective, all pollutants come out of a tailpipe all at once; health effects are cumulative. He noted that physicians and patients must be attuned to

not only individual toxic effects, but also toxic effects together on the human body that we don’t completely understand.

Children, the elderly, and the poor are much more vulnerable to health impacts than the rest of the population. Children’s metabolic rates are higher, so they naturally breathe faster resulting in greater intake of polluted air. Children are also at risk before they are even born. Exposure to pollutant carrying pollen of pregnant women increases the likelihood that their child will have asthma. With an increase in pediatric asthma visits, it is clear that the American youth is suffering from our rapid emission of particulate matter. Additionally, children’s bodies are at a much greater risk of dehydration. Heat waves, the leading cause of death in the United States, bring with it more children at the hospital.

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Scientists are working to identify the effects of a changing climate and in particular of carbon pollution on individual people, but the web of relationships between particulates and human health is very complex and more research is needed.

Though the full range of health effects is yet to be seen, we know that health costs and economic damage from extreme weather events will be on the rise, particularly from heat waves, floods, droughts, and dangerous storms. Experts agreed that the following would be key health risks from climate:

  • More than doubled asthma rates and lengthened asthma season (already 20 days longer)
  • Threatened access to clean drinking water
  • Increases in airborne and insect borne illnesses (e.g. mosquitos, ticks, tapeworm)
  • Increases in diarrheal, respiratory, and heart disease
  • Increased risk of salmonella spread as average temperatures rise
  • Increase in hospital use results in rising health care costs
  • Particular risk among low-income communities, children, the elderly, and the obese

Yet again we must ask ourselves the question: is this the life we want to provide for our children?

The Importance of the Press

The medical experts on the call also emphasized the critical role of the press in reaching the public to educate Americans on these issues. Dr. Ebi, lead author of the Fourth IPCC Assessment chapter on human health, concluded the call by noting,

The press plays a vital role in helping Americans understand the health effects of climate change.

The experts acknowledged the vital role the press has already played in alerting the public to code red days, when air pollution is particularly bad, or by providing pollen count information in newspapers. They urged the media to continue to educate and do more to enable public understanding of the health risks they face.

Healthy Americans: “Let’s Keep It That Way”

By preparing for and understand what will come, we can protect our public health now.

Dr. Benjamin ended the call by reminding us why we put the Clean Air Act in place to begin with:

It has made significant improvements in the health and wellbeing of the American public, and we’d absolutely like to keep it that way.

Streaming audio and transcript from the call is available here.

By Susan Lyon and Lee Hamill of CAP’s Energy team.