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NIEHS Supporting Greenhouse Gas Emissions Study Group

By Eddy Ball
January 2009

Photo of Chris Portier, Ph.D.
Along with his work on the environmental issues and their impacts on human health, NIEHS researcher Chris Portier works closely with the WHO and other international bodies on risks to human health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Photo of Andrew Haines, M.D.
Haines is a member of the WHO Advisory Committee on Health Research and has worked internationally in Nepal, Jamaica, Canada and the U.S. (Photo courtesy of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

Photo of Mark Walport, Ph.D.
As director of the Wellcome Trust, Walport oversees more than £600 million in charitable spending every year, both in the U.K. and internationally, achieving the organization's mission - supporting and promoting research to improve the health of humans and animals. (Photo courtesy of the Wellcome Trust)

NIEHS Associate Director Chris Portier, Ph.D., has the lead role for NIEHS on an international team of scientists investigating the potential health benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to help combat climate change. The results of the study will inform the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December.

The study will be led by Sir Andrew Haines, M.D. ( Exit NIEHS, the director and a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). Portier is head of the NIEHS Office of Risk Assessment Research and part of a leadership team with assignments in the areas of global environmental health and climate change.

Much of the climate change debate has focused on environmental impacts, but climate change is also likely to affect the health of millions of people. Threats include heat waves and flooding, changing patterns of infectious diseases such as malaria and dengue, and the risk that hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced by water scarcity and rising sea levels. The effects are expected to be greatest in developing countries.

However, mitigation strategies - policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to tackle climate change - could also have positive implications for health. For example, encouraging people to walk rather than take the car could make populations more physically active, reducing obesity while also cutting urban pollution and road traffic accidents. Similarly, moving to greener fuels could reduce outdoor air pollution and improve public health.

The international team of scientists will model the impacts of policies aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in both developed and developing countries. The researchers will focus on four key sectors - energy, transport, the built environment, and food and agriculture.

The expert group will explore more detailed case studies. These will include examples relating to domestic energy-saving measures in the United Kingdom (U.K.), household fuel use in India, power generation, urban transport changes and initiatives to reduce the use of cars, and the impact of changing agricultural practices and reducing meat consumption to reduce livestock emissions.

The £405,000 study is being funded by the Wellcome Trust ( Exit NIEHS, the Royal College of Physicians, Economic and Social Research Council, U.K. Department of Health, U.K. National Institute for Health Research, NIEHS and U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences.

"Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential if we are to help tackle climate change, but we need to better understand the potential health impact of these strategies," says Sir Mark Walport, Ph.D., director of the Wellcome Trust. "Climate change could have a devastating impact on people's health, with those in the developing world at greatest risk. Well-planned and successfully-implemented climate change mitigation strategies could actually improve public health - a win-win solution."

This study is intended to inform negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference ( Exit NIEHS in Copenhagen, as political leaders meet to reach agreements on targets post-Kyoto. The Wellcome Trust and the LSHTM will be working with the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise awareness of this research and the health impacts of climate change during the course of the year.

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