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NIEHS and The Lancet Address Public Health Impacts of Climate Change

By Robin Mackar
December 2009

Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D.
Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chris Portier, Ph.D.
Chris Portier, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Photo of a woman on a television screen
Margaret Chan, Director General World Health Organization (via satellite)
(Photo courtesy of Susan Hornyak)

Three panelists sit at a table as a woman speaks at a podium
NIEHS Director Linda Birnbaum, and panelists Kirk Smith, Roger Glass and Rita Colwell (Photo courtesy of Susan Hornyak)

Photo of a man speaking at a podium
Assistant Secretary for Health, HHS, Howard Koh (Photo courtesy of Susan Hornyak)

Strategies to reduce greenhouse gases also benefit human health, according to studies published in the medical journal The Lancet. The Lancet series was unveiled on November 25 by key researchers and public health officials who gathered in the United States and Britain via satellite simulcast. NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. (, and NIEHS Associate Director Christopher Portier, Ph.D., took a lead role in the U.S. portion of the event held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The Lancet series highlights case studies on four climate change topics - household energy, transportation, electricity generation and agricultural food production. Researchers say cost savings realized from improving health will offset the cost of addressing climate change and, therefore, should be considered as part of all policy discussions related to climate change. The studies were commissioned to help inform discussions at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009.

More than 120 people attended the Washington event. U.S. Assistant Secretary for Health Jon Kim Andrus, M.D., participated by providing opening remarks for the press conference that immediately followed the meeting.

"We are learning that the health of our planet and the health of our people are tied together. It's difficult for one to thrive without the other," said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a video message to the two continents. "Climate change is not a problem that one country or one organization can solve on its own. It's a problem that affects us all."

"These papers demonstrate there are clear and substantive improvements for health if we choose the right mitigation strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Birnbaum. "We now have real-life examples of how we can save the environment, reduce air pollution and decrease related health effects; it's really a win-win situation for everyone."

Each study in the series examines the health implications of actions in high- and low-income countries designed to reduce the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

  • The household energy paper demonstrated that introducing low-emission stove technology, specifically replacing biomass stoves in India, could improve respiratory health.
  • The transportation study showed that cutting emissions by reducing motor vehicle use and increasing walking and cycling would bring substantial health gains by reducing heart disease and stroke by 10-20 percent, dementia by 8 percent, and depression by 5 percent.
  • The electricity study demonstrated that changing methods of generation to reduce carbon dioxide, such as using wind turbines, would reduce particulate air pollution and yield the greatest potential for health-related cost savings in China and India.
  • The food production study showed that the food and agriculture sector contributes about 20 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and that a 30 percent reduction in consumption of saturated fats from animal sources would reduce heart disease by about 15 percent while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Funding for The Lancet Health and Climate Change series was provided by NIEHS, and British partners including the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Department of Health, the Economic and Social Research Council, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the National Institute for Health Research, the Royal College of Physicians, and the Wellcome Trust.

(Robin Mackar is the news director in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

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