Back in early 2006, when our family of newspapers published a series of articles on climate change, I wanted to contribute by writing about the health aspects of climate change. But, my article never materialized because I had such a difficult time finding any information about this issue.
It was fairly easy for me to imagine global warming and to come up with some possible health-related issues that could arise. Increased rates of skin cancer and heatstroke came to mind. However, public health experts who were preparing for climate change were few and far between back then.
Now, just two years later, public health groups around the world are targeting climate change as a major public health issue.
The World Health Organization is increasingly focusing on global warming's potential affects on factors critical to human health, such as safe drinking water, sufficient food, secure shelter and good social conditions, especially in poorer nations. Rising sea levels put coastal areas and island nations at risk of flooding and may make some areas uninhabitable. Drought may also cause mass migrations to other regions.
The Centers for Disease Control - the federal agency whose mission is to protect the health of all Americans - is focusing on a long list of possible health consequences of climate change, including:
? Injuries caused by severe weather (hurricanes, cyclones, tornados, flooding) and heat exposure,
? Increases in allergies, asthma and respiratory illness rates due to increases in ground-level ozone levels, airborne allergens and other pollutants,
? Increases in diseases carried by mosquitoes and other insects - malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, West Nile virus and others,
? Increases in water-borne illnesses such as cholera and other diarrheal diseases,
? Threats to the safety and availability of food and water supplies,
? Negative impacts of mass migration and regional conflicts.
World Health Organization researchers have projected the likelihood of death and disability from climate-related causes in the next 20 years. They believe that Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia will be affected far more than other parts of the world. The more developed countries in North America, Europe, Central America, South America and Australia will be affected to a much lesser degree, but no country will be left untouched.
So, what does this mean to us in the Pacific Northwest?
Various climate change models show average Pacific Northwest temperatures increasing between five and 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. This is less dramatic warming than other parts of the country will experience, so the Northwest may become a refuge for people fleeing other regions, increasing our population.
Certainly, heatstroke will be increasingly common, especially for those who work and play outdoors during the summer months. Respiratory problems such as asthma will probably be more prevalent as we will be breathing increasingly polluted air.
It is difficult to accurately predict if infectious diseases will have a serious impact on human health in this part of the world - but they certainly will in more tropical environments.
On a positive note, the incidence of cold-related wintertime deaths may decrease as temperatures in colder regions increase. Also, warmer temperatures may actually increase the local food supply due to longer growing seasons in the Pacific Northwest.
Kathryn B. Brown worked as a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner before coming to work for the Chinook Observer's sister newspaper in Pendleton, the East Oregonian. She can be reached at email@example.com.