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Experts: Global Warming Affects Health

Health Officials Tell Senate Committee of Health Risks From Climate Change
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 23, 2007 -- Poor air quality, scarce water, even a more hospitable environment for disease-carrying mosquitoes. All of these are potential impacts of global warming on human health, federal and state health officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Public health officials warn that environmental changes are almost guaranteed to have an impact on people's health. The problem is, there are far more "unknowns" than "knowns," they said.

"I don't think in some of these areas it's a question of 'if.' It's a question of who, what, where, when, how -- and how bad it will be," CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"What you're telling us is we'd better get ready for this and we'd better get ready for this now," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the environment committee.

CDC officials warn that potential effects of global warming range from an increase in catastrophic weather events like hurricanes and heat waves, to lower water and food quality.

Boxer highlighted the case of a 14-year-old boy who died in September from a disease-causing amoeba after swimming in an Arizona lake. Following the death, CDC officials issued a warning for swimmers to avoid excessively warm or stagnant water, where the amoeba thrives.

"Right now it is a rare disease, but it is exactly the kind of thing we're here to talk about," Gerberding said.

Lungs and Air Quality

Other potential health problems are far less rare. Michael McCally, MD, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, warned that much of the country already lives at increased risk of asthma and other respiratory problems due to ozone-related air pollution.

"Global warming undermines efforts to improve air quality as rising temperatures accelerate ozone formation in the summer months," he said.

Tennessee health commissioner Susan R. Cooper told lawmakers that heat waves and forest fires are beginning to stretch health departments nationwide.

"Our systems are being taxed by these events as they are appearing with increased frequency and greater severity," said Cooper, who represents the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

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