During recent NIEHS Superfund Research Program (SRP) webinars, researchers discussed how climate change may increase the risk of health hazards and what is being done to meet this complex challenge.
The webinars were part of a three-part SRP Climate Change and Health webinar series. The first sessionIt was held in October and focused on strategies to mitigate the dangerous impacts of climate change.
Climate Change and Health Initiatives
“Each year, extreme weather events such as hurricanes, extreme heat, wildfires, storms and floods are increasing, becoming more intense, lasting longer, and impacting communities in the United States and around the world more,” said Gwen. Kollman, Ph.D., NIEHS Office of Science Coordination, Planning, and Evaluation.
Kollman explains some effects of climate change on human healthincluding heat-related illnesses, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, mental and neurological disorders, vector-borne and water-borne diseases, injuries and deaths.
“Climate change is affecting people all over the world, but these impacts are not evenly distributed,” Kollman explained. “We focus part of our work on understanding how to protect underserved populations such as people of color, low-income populations, immigrant communities, Indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities.”
Kollman serves as a strategic advisor to the NIH Climate Change and Health Initiatives.
“The Biden administration has asked every federal agency to address the climate crisis at home and abroad,” Kollman said. “The NIH was able to bring together the directors of several institutes to jointly develop a new research strategy to reduce the health threats posed by climate change.”
“Hurricanes are one of the most devastating natural disasters,” said Dr. Naresh Kumar of the University of Miami. “They dramatically alter the natural landscape, cost lives, destroy infrastructure and property, and exacerbate adverse environmental effects that persist for months after they fall on the ground.”
Kumar, Ph.D., and Deborah Watkins, Ph.D., of the SRP Center at the University of Michigan and Northeastern University, described their respective teams’ exposure control efforts after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 to webinar attendees.
Now, Dr. Elena Craft, a former SRP-funded intern at the Environmental Defense Fund, talks about another hurricane that hit the United States that year, Hurricane Harvey.
“We partnered with Entanglement Technologies, a small business funded by SRP, to monitor air pollution in the area,” Kraft said. “We also coordinated messaging to ensure that all stakeholders, including residents and public officials, understand the results and can make quick decisions to protect health.”
“We built our program around disaster preparedness,” Kraft explained. “We have the tools to predict which facilities will be damaged and which communities will be most vulnerable to toxic exposure, as well as a team of partners across the United States who can quickly mobilize after natural or industrial disasters.”
Health effects of fire smoke
“The spread and intensity of wildfires continue to worsen air quality and increase disease risk,” said Dr. Julia Rager of the SRP Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).
Forest fire smoke can contain impurities from burning wood, including particulate matter, benzene, formaldehyde, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic pollutants, and metals. These compounds are often formed together with chemicals from human activities.
Rager and his team are using computational modeling to analyze and group the main components of wildfire-related toxins based on their source, health effects, chemical structure, and DNA-damaging potential.
“The climate crisis is expected to worsen heat and dryness and increase wildfires by 50%,” Rager said. “It is not possible to test every chemical in a fire, but these new modeling and analytical methods can improve risk characterization and help develop health protection strategies.”
Climate Impacts and Pollution in the Arctic
Elsie Sunderland, Ph.D., of the SRP Centers at Harvard University and the University of Rhode Island, said, “The impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent in Arctic ecosystems. “Warming is more intense and we are seeing permafrost melting and sea ice clearing. Indigenous populations and other communities that depend on seafood and marine mammals for their livelihoods are of particular concern.”
Sunderland explained that many of the pollutants released at lower latitudes are carried by wind and ocean currents to the Arctic, where they accumulate and expose humans to harmful pollutants through food and other sources.
“As the permafrost melts, our models show that pollutants such as methylmercury that previously flowed into the ocean are redistributed to lower latitudes,” Sunderland said. “These pollutants that accumulate in fish can have adverse health effects, including cardiovascular health and neurological disorders.”
(Mali Velasco is a science writer for MDB Inc., the contractor for the NIEHS Superfund research program.)