NIH teams with Lancet to address public health impacts of climate change

November 25, 2009

Strategies to reduce greenhouse gases also benefit human health, according to studies published today in the medical journal The Lancet. 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. Key researchers and public health officials in the United States and Britain gathered together via satellite simulcast to unveil the new research.

The studies were commissioned to help inform discussions at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Funding for The Lancet Health and Climate Change series was provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health, 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.

"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. "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.

"If we work to reduce pollution," added Secretary Sebelius, "we will also reduce deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases."

"These papers demonstrate there are clear and substantive improvements for health if we choose the right mitigation strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions," said Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS and National Toxicology Program, one of the key sponsors of the international event. "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."

The household energy paper showed that introducing low-emission stove technology, specifically replacing biomass stoves in India, could improve respiratory health. The study says the technology is one of the most cost-effective climate-health linkages, given that indoor air pollution from inefficient cooking stoves increases respiratory infections in children and chronic heart disease in adults.

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.

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. Climate change due to emission of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel energy sources causes air pollution by increasing ground-level ozone and concentrations of fine particulate matter.

"Climate change threatens us all, but its impact will likely be greatest on the poorest communities in every country," said Kirk R. Smith, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, and author on several of the papers. "Carefully choosing how we reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have the added benefit of reducing global health inequities."
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Video from this event will be available from the National Press Club at http://www.visualwebcaster.com/event.asp?id=64196 after the event is over.

The NIEHS supports research to understand the effects of the environment on human health and is part of NIH. For more information on environmental health topics, visit our Web site at http://www.niehs.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) -- The Nation's Medical Research Agency -- includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.

NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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