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Environmental Factor, March 2013

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Putting climate change and human health science into practice

By Carol Kelly

Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D.

Dilworth led the symposium planning committee and described current grant projects funded by NIH. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

John Balbus, M.D.

The symposium marked a truly historic moment, because attendees — experts on climate change and human health — helped create the present regard for climate change as a mainstream issue, according to Balbus, HHS principal to the U.S. Global Change Research Program. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Chris Portier, Ph.D.

“Weather and climate have always had a key influence on human health. This influence on our lives will increase with climate change,” said Chris Portier, Ph.D., director of the CDC National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Previously, as a senior science advisor at NIEHS, Portier led the ad hoc Interagency Working Group on Climate Change and Health that developed the report, “ A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change (Full Report) (4MB) ,” which outlines research needs. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As extreme weather events, such as droughts and superstorms, call attention to the effects of climate change, questions about actions that can be taken to protect and prevent harm to the health of people are becoming a focus of climate discussions.

To help find the answers, for the first time, NIEHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) formally brought together their grantees working on climate change and human health, to share their research findings and discuss practical strategies for implementing this knowledge. The meeting, “Extreme Weather, Climate, and Health: Putting Science Into Practice,” was held Jan. 30-31 in Washington, D.C.

“The goal of this meeting was for grantees to share latest advances, as well as for participants to network with each other to build new relationships and plant the seeds for future collaborations toward solving one of the most critical public health issues facing our world,” said Caroline Dilworth, Ph.D., NIEHS health scientist administrator.

Supporting the climate change and health research community

NIEHS and the Fogarty International Center have led the coordination and expansion of NIH support for research on the human health effects from climate change.

“Our goal is to build and support the climate change and human health research community,” said NIEHS/NTP Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D. “At NIEHS, our research focus is on prevention rather than diagnosis. Our understanding of the complex relationships among extreme weather events, health outcomes, and biological, social, and geographical risk factors continues to develop.”

Vulnerable populations were given special emphasis in some presentations. NIEHS grantee Joel Schwartz, Ph.D., from Harvard University, explained his finding that when temperature changes erratically within a few days, even without reaching extremes, the variability is a health risk for the elderly, especially those with existing health conditions, because their bodies may have difficulty adapting to rapid changes. Shao Lin, M.D., Ph.D., an NIEHS grantee at the University of Albany, presented her finding that exposure to excessive heat during pregnancy was associated with congenital cataracts, a cloudiness in the eye lens, in newborns.

Other panelists spoke about climate and health issues, such as increasing rates of infectious diseases carried by such insects as mosquitoes and ticks; escalating energy demand during temperature extremes may create blackouts that affect the environment and potentially health; encroaching tropical marine toxins in subtropical zones that impair seafood security; and managing adaptation to high-heat exposures in localities, ranging from the rural South to the North, to lessen vulnerabilities among people.

Integrating climate data and public health at the local level

George Luber, Ph.D., associate director for Global Climate Change at the CDC National Center for Environmental Health, presented the Building Resilience Against Climate Effects (BRACE) framework. This five-step method enables state or local health departments to integrate the best available climate data and projections with the incidence and prevalence of health conditions, to better anticipate, prepare for, and respond to a range of climate-related health effects. CDC’s Climate-Ready States and Cities Initiative supports BRACE programs in 16 states and two cities.

“NIEHS would like to see more meetings like this one, to translate research to scientists in other fields, to decision-makers, and to the public,” said John Balbus, M.D., NIEHS senior advisor for public health. “Collaboration between the research and the public health communities is essential for addressing the climate change and human health challenge. We need to ensure that significant research findings are integrated into public health planning, as well as ensure that researchers are addressing the topics of greatest concern.”

Howard Koh, M.D., assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), spoke to the group early in the meeting about the importance of their work to public health.

“I want to remind all of us that we are interconnected, we are all doing work that is interrelated, and we all have promises to keep,” said Koh.

(Carol Kelly, a health communication specialist, works for MDB Inc., a contractor for the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training.)

Promoting collaboration

Both the research and public health practice communities face data needs and challenges. Offering one solution, Juli Trtanj, Oceans and Human Health Initiative program manager at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), gave a special preview demonstration of the Metadata Access Tool for Climate and Health, a searchable clearinghouse of publicly available federal monitoring and surveillance data sets, early warning systems, and tools for characterizing the health impacts of global climate change. The system is being developed by the U.S. Global Change Research Program Interagency Crosscutting Group on Climate Change and Human Health,, co-chaired by NIEHS, CDC, and NOAA.

Successful models for researchers and practitioners to work together, as well as examples of community involvement in research and public health adaptation efforts, were highlighted at the meeting. Best practices for translating and communicating research to decision-makers, including the use of key messages, case studies, and communication tools, were also presented.

“There is a real need to apply behavioral and social science strategies to communicating about the risks of climate change," said Kimberly Thigpen Tart, J.D., an NIEHS program analyst who moderated the research translation panel. “We need to understand what will be most effective in motivating people to act on the science we present.”

“People want to know what’s happening where they live,” said Kim Knowlton, Dr.PH., senior scientist in the health and environment program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in her keynote address. “Local data gets conversations started. People hear about national data and wonder what does this mean in my backyard. Climate change is a global issue with local effects.”

The spirit of collaboration at the meeting was also reflected in the impressive range of sponsors. In addition to HHS, NIEHS, and CDC, the American Public Health Association, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, and National Association of County and City Health Officials contributed to making the meeting a success.

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