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Environmental Factor

November 2011

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NIH launches research program to explore health effects from climate change

By Ed Kang
November 2011

ew research program, funded by the NIH, will explore the role that a changing climate has on human health. Led by NIEHS, the program will research the risk factors that make people more vulnerable to heat exposure; changing weather patterns; changes in environmental exposures, such as air pollution and toxic chemicals; and the negative effects of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

In addition to better understanding the direct and indirect human health risks in the United States and globally, one of the program's goals is to determine which populations will be more susceptible and vulnerable to diseases exacerbated by climate change. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and those living in urban or coastal areas and storm centers may be at elevated risk. This program will also help to develop data, methods, and models to support health impact predictions.

“Governments and policy makers need to know what the health effects from climate change are and who is most at risk,” said John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health and lead for NIEHS' efforts on climate change. “The research from this program will help guide public health interventions, to ultimately prevent harm to the most vulnerable people.”

Result of earlier NIH initiatives

The funding program is an outgrowth of two previous efforts led by NIH. A December 2009 workshop, sponsored by a trans-NIH working group, brought leaders in the field together to begin identifying priorities for NIH climate change research. NIH then led the ad hoc Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health in developing an outline of research needs, which are described in an available report(

Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D., health scientist administrator in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training, oversees the grants and anticipates funding additional projects in this important portfolio. “This research will clarify how changes in climate and our environment affect not just heat stress, but also common diseases, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, and stroke,” she said.

In addition to NIEHS, support for the research projects also comes from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Fogarty International Center (FIC).

For additional information on these and future projects, visit the NIEHS Human Health Impacts of Climate Change Web page(

(Ed Kang is a public affairs specialist in the Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D.

Dilworth will oversee research activities funded by NIEHS as part of the new program. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Balbus, M.D.

Based in Bethesda, Md., Balbus is the NIEHS liaison to NIH Institutes and Centers and other federal agencies in several areas of public health. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

A Human Health Perspective On Climate Change report cover

The 2010 NIEHS-led working group report, A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change(, provided a starting point for coordination of federal research to better understand climate's impact on human health. The recommendations of the working group included research to identify the most vulnerable populations and what efforts will be most beneficial. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

New directions in climate change research

  • Ralph Delfino, M.D., Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, University of California, Irvine - Funded by NIEHS to identify populations of children with asthma most vulnerable to air pollutants that are expected to increase with climate change.
  • Julia Gohlke, Ph.D., University of Alabama at Birmingham - Funded by NIEHS to determine whether significant differences in vulnerability to heat-related health impacts exist between urban and rural communities.
  • Karen Levy, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, Emory University - Funded by FIC to examine the impact of current and projected climate variables on the incidence of gastrointestinal disease in Ecuador, for use as a model system to help determine the importance of social factors and infrastructure availability in preventing gastrointestinal disease globally.
  • Jonathan Patz, M.D.( Exit NIEHS, University of Wisconsin-Madison - Funded by NIEHS to develop models that factor in climate, air quality, power plant emissions, and health models, to determine which populations will be most exposed to air pollution-related health risks.
  • Roger Peng, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, Johns Hopkins University - Funded by NIEHS to quantify the effects of biological, environmental, and socioeconomic factors that make people more vulnerable to extreme heat.
  • Joel Schwartz, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, Harvard University - Funded by NIA to examine the impact of changing weather patterns, such as temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, on the elderly, as observed through changes in blood pressure, inflammation, lung function, and related health outcomes. Funded by NIEHS to identify medical and other individual characteristics that put people at increased risk of dying due to weather, and determine air pollution impacts that contribute to those risks.
  • Antonella Zanobetti, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, Harvard University - Funded by NIEHS to define and forecast high risk days, given pollution and climatic conditions, to help determine how reduction in pollution or improvement in climatic conditions could improve cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health.
  • Ying Zhou, Sc.D.( Exit NIEHS, Emory University - Funded by NIEHS to develop models to identify vulnerable geographical locations with increased health impacts due to heat waves and air pollution exposures.

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