Experts: Global Warming Affects Health

Health Officials Tell Senate Committee of Health Risks From Climate Change

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 23, 2007
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Oct. 23, 2007 -- Poor air quality, scarce water, even a more hospitableenvironment for disease-carrying mosquitoes. All of these are potential impactsof global warming on human health, federal and state health officials told aSenate panel Tuesday.

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

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

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

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

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

"Right now it is a rare disease, but it is exactly the kind of thingwe'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 ofthe country already lives at increased risk of asthma and other respiratoryproblems due to ozone-related air pollution.

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

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

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

A Question of Resources

Still, global warming remains stubbornly unpredictable. While mostresearchers agree that human activity is warming the planet, no one knowsexactly by how much. It's even harder to predict how humans will adapt, or failto adapt, to changing conditions.

Several of the panel's Republicans warned that fear of global warming coulddivert precious resources away from effective health programs.

Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said that aggressive efforts to curb carbon emissionsleading to global warming will drive up energy costs for low-income Americans,which could lead to less money for heath care costs.

"What are the long-term effects of going without heart medication, bloodpressure medication, or pain medication?" Bond said.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Julie Gerberding, MD, director, CDC. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. Michael McCally, MD, executive director, Physicians for Social Responsibility. Sen. Tom Barasso, R-Wyo. Susan Cooper, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Health. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

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