Weather Extremes Hint At Public Health Impacts Of Climate Change

From Huffington Post:

Posted: 12/ 8/11

After a year of unprecedented destruction attributed to weather extremes, federal officials and environmental advocates are focusing increased attention on the potential health impacts of global warming, which most scientists expect to spur not just more frequent instances of extreme heat, but also increases in rainfall, drought, snow, floods and violent storms.

“Climate change poses a serious threat to public health,” Dr. George Luber, the associate director for climate change at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday. Luber was speaking to reporters as part of the launch of an online, extreme-weather mapping tool developed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“We have to really understand the local context of these extreme events and how they impact our communities by looking at them in what we call a spatially specific way, or in a way that really gets down to the geography of risk,” Luber said, “by addressing those particular aspects of our communities, our cities and our populations that make people more susceptible to the negative health consequences of climate change.”

Rising temperatures are expected to have an impact on all aspects of the public health infrastructure — from air and water quality to food safety, Luber noted. A warmer atmosphere, for example, retains more water, increasing the likelihood of historically heavy rains, which can subsequently overwhelm treatment facilities and spread disease. Rising temperatures can also exacerbate smog, causing increased instances of respiratory illness, or alter the ecology of insect-borne diseases like Lyme, West Nile virus and others.

“Recall that the largest waterborne disease outbreak in the United States — in Milwaukee in 1993 I believe — was preceded by the heaviest rainfall in 50 years,” Luber said. That event — an outbreak of the microscopic parasite cryptosporidium — resulted in 403,000 cases of intestinal illness, 54 deaths, and nearly $100 million in heath-related costs.

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