Symposium Examines Health Effects of Climate Change

College of Engineering Dean Jean-Pierre Bardet talks about the importance of scientists and clinicians teaming up to shed more light on the health effects of climate.
By Robert C. Jones, Jr.

College of Engineering Dean Jean-Pierre Bardet talks about the importance of scientists and clinicians teaming up to shed more light on the health effects of climate.

Symposium Examines Health Effects of Climate Change

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.
Experts weigh in on emerging health challenges associated with rising temperatures and other climatic conditions

It will take more than a single scientific discipline to sound the alarm on the health consequences of climate change. It will require a team of researchers and clinicians working together to come up with more objective analyses on the disease burden associated with rising temperatures, drought, and other climatic conditions, agreed a group of researchers meeting Tuesday at a climate and health symposium on the University of Miami campus.

“We need a convergence of the sciences, and when that can happen, we can engage more people in adapting to climate change,” said Naresh Kumar, associate professor of public health sciences at UM’s Miller School of Medicine and one of the organizers of the one-day symposium.

Held in the Senate Room of UM’s Shalala Student Center two days before President Trump announced his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, the conference addressed a range of issues relating to climate’s potential impact on human health, including the large concentrations of dust that are blown across the Atlantic each year from arid regions, reaching places as far away as the Southeastern United States.

“There are viable microorganisms that are coming over with the dust,” said aerosol chemist Joseph Prospero, a professor emeritus at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, noting the presence of bacteria and fungi in wind-driven soot from Africa. “But does the dust impact health in this region? That’s the bigger question. We have no evidence at this time that it does. But no one has looked at it in any detail. If we find that there is an impact, we’d like to be able to set up some sort of a warning system to alert populations.”

Humans are to blame for some of the climatic and environmental impacts on health. “We’re loading our lakes with chemicals that affect fish and the quality of the water,” said UM College of Engineering Dean Jean-Pierre Bardet, who noted the insecticide called naled, which is used to kill mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus but can break down in the environment and potentially affect human health.

Data can be one of the best weapons at our disposal to adapt to climate change, but the problem, said David Kelly, professor of economics in UM’s School of Business Administration, is that most of our data is weather related.

“Weather is a random event. It’s much more difficult to take steps to insulate yourself from the adverse health effects that can result from bad weather,” said Kelly. “Climate change, though, is different. It’s a much more slower process over a longer period of time. Over time you learn that the climate has changed and you’re able to take some steps to adapt to the new climate and reduce the health impacts.”

He noted the European heat wave of 2003 that resulted in 70,000 deaths. “It was still a weather-related event,” he explained. “If we had a [temperature increase] of 10 degrees in France over a period of centuries, they could have taken steps to adapt to the higher temperatures. The number of deaths wouldn’t have been zero, but it wouldn’t have been 70,000.”

Florida has adapted better than northern states to warmer temperatures, compensating with more air-conditioning and advanced AC filters. But in states where the weather is not consistently warm, “people might not see the need to spend a lot of money on adaptations like air-conditioning,” said Kelly, going on to explain that spikes in temperature in such states can lead to more deaths.

“So it becomes a challenge of how to account for the adaptation when you’re trying to figure out the effect of climate change on health,” said Kelly. “You can look at the effects of weather on health and hope that it tells us something about the effect of climate on health. But you can’t measure adaption with weather data. Or you can work directly with the climate data, the long-run averages. Then you can directly account for adaption in your statistical model, but your data set will be much smaller.”

The symposium, sponsored by the Department of Public Health Sciences, the Miller School of Medicine, and the Copeland Foundation, also addressed communication efforts aimed at reporting on climate change and its health impacts, with Megan Ondrizek, executive director of communications and public relations at UM, highlighting the Climate Change and Zika Virus special reports produced by her office, University Communications. 

“Our role in University Communications is to collaborate with University partners and share information across various platforms, to our varied audiences,” said Ondrizek. “We are not only communicators but connectors, and in that capacity we have positioned our researchers and faculty members as experts in emerging issues, such as climate change and public health challenges.”

Other UM researchers who presented at the symposium included Roni Avissar, dean of the Rosenstiel School; Dushyantha Jayaweera, executive dean for research and research education at the Miller School; Mehdi Mirsaeidi, assistant professor in the Miller School’s Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care; Anat Galor, associate professor of clinical ophthalmology at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute; and Amy Clement, professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School.