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Public health advocates hope Obama's climate change initiative will help reduce asthma, other ills


By Rachel Landen
Posted: June 25, 2013 - 7:45 pm ET
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When President Obama revealed his Climate Action Plan on Tuesday, public health advocates concerned with the impact of global warming on human health were paying close attention. They hope the president's plan will help reduce what they say are the changing climate's adverse effects on child and adult asthma, allergies and other respiratory diseases, heart disease, diabetes, and other air- and heat-related conditions, as well as water-borne and insect-borne diseases.

Following the president's climate change speech at Georgetown University, leaders of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America met with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and other national health leaders. AAFA President and CEO Bill McLin and board Chair Lynn Hanessian planned to stress the importance of environmental protection in protecting public health.

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“Twenty-five million Americans, including over 7 million children, have asthma, and 50 million Americans have allergies,” McLin said in a release.

Those numbers are significantly higher than they were just a little over a decade ago. In 2001, about 20 million people in the U.S. had asthma. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of Americans with asthma rose by 25%, from about 1 in 14 people to 1 in 12. And although it is difficult for experts to pinpoint exactly why these rates have risen, it is widely agreed that increased air pollution and allergens worsen the symptoms for those with asthma and allergies.

“Climate change is happening, and it's affecting people now,” said Liana Burns, manager of policy and programs at AAFA. “Its health impacts are real.”

“There's a whole range of health effects exacerbated by climate change,” American Public Health Association Executive Director Dr. Georges Benjamin said. “The combination of humidity, heat and poor air quality puts people at a higher risk for a range of poor outcomes.”

According to AAFA and the National Wildlife Federation, warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide encourage the growth of ragweed, the main trigger of fall hay fever. In addition, airborne allergens such as pollen can make breathing difficult, and at worst, increase the frequency and severity of asthma attacks. Increasing heat waves, droughts, and wildfires thought to be related to climate change also contribute to health problems.

The impact of environmental factors—including temperature, moisture and carbon dioxide—on allergic disease is an area that Dr. Leonard Bielory, director of the STARx Allergy and Asthma Center in Springfield, N.J., and a professor at the Rutgers' Center for Environmental Prediction, has been investigating. In an October 2012 report that appeared in Current Allergy and Asthma Reports, Bielory and colleagues Kevin Lyons and Robert Goldberg wrote that “The influence of climate change on allergy is unpredictable ... however, preliminary suspicions by clinical experts indicate that the scale is tipped toward increasing allergies and allergic airway disease.”

Their predictive models show pollen increasing by 20% to 30% by the year 2020. “Whether it's pollen or pollution, it can make allergies worse,” Bielory said. “Ninety percent of asthma in children is triggered by allergies.”

The U.S. Global Change Research Program has noted that pollen seasons have been extended by more than two weeks since 1995, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that carbon dioxide concentrations have doubled over the past century.

Reversing these effects, or at least stopping them in their tracks, is what organizations like the AAFA, APHA and the Trust for America's Health hope can be accomplished under the president's plan. It calls for a cut in greenhouse-gas emissions, with new carbon dioxide standards for power plants, as well as money pledged toward the development of clean energy. Trust for America's Health Executive Director Jeffrey Levi called this “an important step in the right direction,” in a statement issued Tuesday.

In addition, some healthcare organizations have launched action programs to mitigate the impact of bad environmental conditions on child and adult asthma. In Fresno County, California, which suffers from bad air pollution, Anthem Blue Cross has partnered with the American Lung Association to operate a flag program to signal to the community how safe it is each day for schoolchildren to participate in outdoor activities. Anthem officials say the flag program has raised public awareness of the impact of environmental issues on asthma.

“Climate change is a health issue … and it's a big problem, but we can start now and make a difference,” Benjamin said. “That change begins to occur is the important thing. If you don't start now, you'll look back in 10 years and think we've lost 10 years.”

Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden


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