Ailing planet seen as bad for human health

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Climate change will make Americans more vulnerable to diseases, disasters and heat waves, but governments have done little to plan for the added burden on the health system, according to a new study by a nonprofit group.

The study, released Monday by the Trust for America's Health, an advocacy group focused on disease prevention, examines the public-health implications of climate change. In addition to pushing up sea levels and shrinking Arctic ice, the report says, a warming planet is likely to leave more people sick, short of breath or underfed.

Experts involved with the study said that these threats might be reduced if the federal government adopts a cap on greenhouse-gas emissions. But no legislation could stop them altogether, they said. Emissions already in the atmosphere are expected to increase warming -- and the problems that come with it -- for years to come.

"That [a cap on greenhouse gases] really is not enough," said Phyllis Cuttino of the Pew Environment Group, which funded the study. "We can see all these problems coming, but as a country, we haven't done enough to prepare for them."

The idea that climate change will be bad for people as well as polar bears is not new: It was explained in detail by a United Nations panel that won the Nobel Peace Prize for its work on climate in 2007.

Monday's report summarized some of the biggest worries for Americans in particular. They included:

-- Heat waves, which the report says are expected to increase. The danger is expected to be worst, the report said, in concrete-clad cities, where the lack of greenery creates an "urban heat island." Under climate change, the experts said, summer heat could also sneak up on people in cities where air conditioning hasn't been needed in the past.

-- More "extreme weather events," such as hurricanes, floods and wildfire-breeding droughts. Drought could also create crop failures, the report said, leading to malnutrition.

-- More widespread diseases carried by mosquitoes, ticks and other pests. If warmer temperatures allow these animals to expand their ranges northward, the result could be more cases of West Nile virus, Lyme disease and hantavirus.

-- Increased air pollution, caused because heat contributes to the formation of smog. This, the report said, could increase the incidence of severe asthma or pulmonary disease.

The experts who worked on the study said they could not provide a timetable for when and where these effects will appear. But they said it is already time to get ready for them, but many governments are not doing so.

"Some of the most personal effects of climate change are going to be health-related ones," said Jeff Levi, executive director of the Trust for America's Health. "We should want the government doing as much as possible now to prevent these effects, or minimize them when they occur."

Officials involved in the study said that preparations might include planting more trees in cities, to clean and cool urban air. Levi said they might also include laying in supplies of medicine for diseases that might appear in an area for the first time.


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