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Environmental connections to public health >>

Climate Change and Health: An M.D. Weighs In

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Special to Enviroblog by Dr. Anila Jacob

In a new report for Worldwatch Institute, Dr. Samuel Myers outlines the impacts of global environmental change on human health in compelling detail, from the increases in certain infectious diseases to food and water scarcity among vulnerable populations. Humans are changing the environment, both locally and globally, in unprecedented ways and the consequences of these changes are already being felt in many communities across the planet.

Call to action for wealthier nations The health impacts of these environmental changes are especially severe for the poorest people on our planet; this point is especially poignant, given the fact that they contribute the least to these changes. One of Dr. Myers' main points in this report is that those of us who live in richer nations have a moral obligation to assist those in resource poor areas to adjust to global environmental changes that further worsen the divide between the rich and poor. At the same time, we must work diligently to decrease our sizable contribution to environmental degradation. In essence, this report is a call to action for definitive and committed action on the part of governments and individuals from wealthier nations. Not just the environment -- it's our health, too As I read this, I was struck by how unaware most Americans are about the public health implications of global environmental issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. For too long, these issues have been viewed only as environmental issues when they are really public health issues as well.

While acknowledging the serious threat that global warming poses to wildlife such as polar bears, we can engage more of the public if we also increase awareness about the risks to people. For example, we should start to talk about global warming in the context of lung disease -- as temperatures get warmer, higher levels of ground level ozone and air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide form, leading to increased exacerbations of chronic lung diseases including asthma and emphysema. Chronic lung diseases currently affect 30 million Americans, including nearly 10% of children; engaging even a small proportion of this population in the fight against climate change can be very powerful.

We all must collaborate for action If we are to tackle global environmental change in a meaningful way, we must involve and recruit as many people as possible to address these challenges. To do this, we have to increase awareness about the full nature of the threats posed by environmental degradation.

Discussing environmental issues in the context of public health will allow us to engage diverse groups of people, including physicians, public health advocates, parents, and health-affected communities who may not currently be engaged on environmental issues. This is the only way in which we can affect the dramatic actions necessary to address global environmental changes with the commitment and urgency they require.

Thanks Flickr and davidgsteadman for the photo!

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