Health Workers Planning Ahead for Climate Change Effects on US

By Tucker, Charlotte | The Nation's Health, February 2013 | Go to article overview

Health Workers Planning Ahead for Climate Change Effects on US


Tucker, Charlotte, The Nation's Health


SEA LEVELS ARE RISING. Glaciers are melting and heat waves are striking with increasing frequency. The global climate is changing, and with those changes come challenges for U.S. public health professionals, who will be faced with new and increasing health dangers in their states and communities.

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To keep tabs on climate change effects on the nation, the Environmental Protection Agency has compiled a list of 26 environmental indicators. Released as a report in December, the indicators are designed to be used to better understand climate trends and how they may affect people, the environment and society. From increased flooding to more frequent droughts to increases in cases of tropical infectious diseases, climate change has been predicted to have a marked impact on U.S. public health.

"This is a terrifically important report," said Kim Knowlton, DrPH, senior scientist in the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's hugely important for us to determine indicators, which are simpler measures of complex changes in the global climate."

The report comes at a time when climate change is at the forefront of the country's consciousness. On Jan. 8, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration announced that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental United States. Along the East Coast, many communities are still cleaning up from Hurricane Sandy, which struck with nearly unprecedented ferocity in an area that rarely sees such storms.

The report's 26 indicators contain data that can be used to assess trends over time, support science-based decisionmaking and evaluate existing and future climate-related policies and programs. Indicators include U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, high and low temperatures, drought, tropical cyclone activity, snowfall, length of growing season and heat-related deaths.

The report adds three new indicators since the first edition in 2010: snow-fall, streamflow and rag-weed pollen season, and expands the Arctic sea ice, snow cover and drought indicators. The 2010 heat wave indicator was converted and is now called high and low temperatures.

The ragweed indicator is already yielding important information, said Knowlton, an APHA member. About 26 percent of all Americans are sensitive to ragweed, and an allergy can be especially dangerous in people who also suffer from asthma, particularly children.

Climate change can affect ragweed in several ways. Warmer spring temperatures can cause plants to start producing pollen earlier, according to the report, and warmer temperatures and more carbon dioxide can cause plants to produce more pollen. Data shows that the ragweed season in the northern Midwest increased in length by about two weeks between 1995 and 2011.

"These are very provocative dots on the map," Knowlton said. "But what does this mean in terms of public health? It means more emergency room visits for allergies. If seasons become longer, the health effects may also be expanding."

The indicators report also tracks shifts in weather patterns and conditions. For example, the report found that the depth of snow on the ground in early spring decreased at most measurement sites--some by more than 75 percent--between 1950 and 2000. …

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Health Workers Planning Ahead for Climate Change Effects on US
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