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Public Health, the Next Victim of Climate Change

Sep 23, 2014 12:02 PM EDT

Climate change and the warming temperatures that go along with it threaten species survival, entire ecosystems, economic stability, as well as contribute to more frequent wildfires, drought and hurricanes. And now public health is being highlighted as the next victim in a long line of casualties due to climate change, according to a new study.

"Climate change already is affecting global health," lead author Jonathan Patz, with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a press release. "The good news is that clear health benefits are immediately available, from low-carbon strategies that today could result in cleaner air or to more active transport options that can improve physical fitness, ultimately saving lives and averting disease."

Rising temperatures is one main side effect of climate change. The number of extremely hot days in Eastern and Midwestern US cities is projected to triple by mid-century. Milwaukee and New York City, for example, could experience three times as many 90-degree days by 2046, while Dallas could see twice as many days topping 100 degrees. And with this sweltering heat there is likely to be more cases of heat stroke and dehydration.

The new study examines the science behind some of the current and projected climate-related health risks. These include more extreme heat waves and storms, increased waterborne and infectious disease risks, more chronic health risks related to air pollution and increased malnutrition and obesity-related risks from carbon-intensive diets.

"Climate change is an enormous public health challenge because it affects our health through multiple pathways," Patz said. "But if the risks are so interdependent, so, too, are the opportunities."

Patz and his team believe that taking action on climate change now can bring better health in the future. For instance, improvements to air quality, such as through reductions in unhealthy ozone, or smog, could possibly reduce irregular heartbeat and blood clots among the public.

This is "consistent with well-known linkages between climate and ozone in urban areas, and serves as a major pathway for the health impacts of climate change," added co-author Tracey Holloway.

The analysis also lays out a number of science-based strategies to reduce global consumption of fossil fuels while simultaneously improving health. These include designing sustainable cities, eating less meat, enacting better carbon policies - the potential health beefits of which outweigh the costs - and promoting active transport like walking or biking to work.

"These findings dovetail with recent World Health Organization (WHO) studies that identified major health benefits from low carbon housing, transport and agriculture," said World Health Organization (WHO) health policy expert Carlos Dora. "Many of these benefits come from reductions in air pollution, but low carbon strategies also can increase physical activity, reduce traffic injuries and improve food security."

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, were presented Monday at the Civil Society Event on Action in Climate Change and Health in New York.

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