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Annual Public Lectures Series > Joel D. Scheraga

Scientists and Journalists:
Getting the Point Across
June 11-15, 2007

The Potential Health Impacts of Climate Change
Joel D. Scheraga, National Program Director, Global Change Research Program and Mercury Research Program, US Environmental Protection Agency
Summary of comments from June 14

"We have the ability to identify what the risks to public health are due to a changing climate," said Joel Scheraga, national program director for the Global Change Research Program and the Mercury Research Program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "We have the technological know-how in this country, as well as in other countries, to deal with those risks and take advantage of the opportunities. But we've got to figure out how to adapt effectively."

Scheraga addressed a crowded auditorium at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography on June 12, 2007, on the potential health impacts of climate change. Scheraga's discussion was part of the Metcalf Institute's annual public lecture series, "Scientists and Journalists: Getting the Point Across."

"Climate change affects human health through a variety of different pathways, some of which are more direct and more easily understood than others," Scheraga said. One of the more direct ways is through heat waves, and their frequency and intensity. We already know that heat stress kills, so an increase in that intensity imposes an increased danger for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and the poor.

One of the more indirect pathways, according to Scheraga, is malnutrition. As climate changes, there will be changes in agricultural production and crop yields. That, along with economic activity, can impact the extent to which there is malnutrition in certain areas of the world.

Air and water quality are also concerns. Air quality is sensitive to weather conditions, such as precipitation, temperature and wind speed. Poor air quality has obvious health effects including increased respiratory and cardiopulmonary illnesses but also economic impacts, like lost workdays, decreased worker productivity and crop yield loss. Sea level rise raises questions about the impact on the world's drinking water.

Even more indirect are the affects on human health through changes in ecosystems. "We know that as the climate changes, ecosystems change," Scheraga explained. "Forest cover will changed, vegetation cover will change. We're already seeing some of those changes beginning to occur. As ecosystems change, habitats change."

"That is probably the least understood of all the different impact categories. We know that as the climate changes, our ecosystem changes, and that can lead to the spread of infectious diseases."

Certain diseases are known to be sensitive to climate, including Malaria, Yellow Fever and Dengue Fever. Already an issue in many third world countries, the spread of infectious disease is also something that should be of concern to more developed nations.

Even considering all of these impacts and changes, it is vital to keep in mind that they are manageable problems, Scheraga said. Anticipation and preparation is key to combating and dealing with the impacts of climate change, according to Scheraga.

"We as humans have the ability to anticipate the future, unlike wildlife that can only react. We have the ability to think about what the future might hold and to plan for it," he said. "Anticipatory adaptation is an important mechanism for us to protect public health as the climate changes."

Some means of anticipating and preparing include improved monitoring and surveillance control programs, disaster preparedness and response capability, public education and early warning systems, including the improved use of climate forecasts.

"Once again, a lot of these are manageable problems if, in fact, we anticipate them, make sure we understand them. We need to understand what the risks are and prepare for the future," Scheraga said.

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December 4, 2007