Global warming enhances smog formation, which contributes to chronic disease risk for lung cancer, heart disease, asthma and allergies (the rates of which have increased fourfold in the U.S. alone since 1980). These diseases are exacerbated by ground-level ozone formation emanating from traffic emissions, increases in particulate matter, pollen and mold, and exposure to greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide.
Recent conditions in Beijing offer a worrisome example of the effects of air pollution on human health. In this city of more than 17 million people, 2007 smog levels exceeded safety guidelines set by the World Health Organization by 400 percent, leaving citizens with only 65 days of acceptable breathing air and prompting public health officials to close highways and restrict air travel and raising concerns by some about the health of athletes competing in the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The profound effects of climate change demonstrate that the health of our planet and its people are inextricably entwined and underscore why action is needed now on multiple fronts to safeguard the health of people worldwide.
The fight to stop global warming and reduce its health-damaging effects begins with building a cleaner energy future and a more climate-conscious population. Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced and natural resources protected by increased use of clean, efficient energy sources, developing new clean energy technologies, and encouraging individuals to make more environmentally conscious lifestyle decisions.
Public health infrastructure and planning must be strengthened by advancing climate modeling, improving environmental public health tracking and disease surveillance, and increasing research into the relationship between climate change and health.
Increasing health professional training and public education, developing government and private sector response plans, and building communication networks will enhance society’s capacity to respond.
To prevent and reduce the serious public health threats from global warming, governments, nongovernmental organizations, businesses, schools, philanthropists and individuals must collaborate across communities and countries to develop and implement lifesaving programs and policies to ensure a greener and healthier world.
Susan Blumenthal, M.D., rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service (retired) and former U.S. assistant surgeon general, is the distinguished adviser for health and medicine at the Center for the Study of the Presidency in Washington, D.C. and a clinical professor at Georgetown and Tufts University Schools of Medicine. Yi-An Ko, a recent graduate of Harvard University, is a health policy fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency. Stephanie Safdi, a recent graduate of Harvard and Cambridge Universities, is a research assistant at the Center for the Study of the Presidency.
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