Researchers, clinicians, and scientists to explore climate’s impact on human health

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

Researchers, clinicians, and scientists to explore climate’s impact on human health

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Climate’s influence on children’s health, the delivery of health care, and policies to mitigate its effects are just some of the topics that will be explored at the one-day Climate and Health Symposium at the University of Miami.

The initial damage was easy to see—homes destroyed, roads and bridges washed away, neighborhoods inundated by flooding.

But Hurricane Maria did more than damage Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. In the wake of the storm’s devastation, thousands of schoolchildren on the island and scores of displaced residents developed marked symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, adding more credence to the warnings of public health experts that extreme weather powered by human-induced climate change is having adverse effects on the mental and physical well-being of humans.

Those health impacts, and the potential solutions to mitigate them, will be the topic of intense discussion and analysis on March 28, when the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine hosts its fourth annual Climate and Health Symposium at the Storer Auditorium on the Coral Gables campus.

“We’re already seeing the consequences of how climate affects health,” said Naresh Kumar, an associate professor of environmental health in the Miller School’s Department of Public Health Sciences, noting spikes in heart-related deaths that occurred in New Delhi last summer when temperatures there soared to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Both short- and long-term changes in climate and extreme weather directly and indirectly impact health and well-being, and these impacts will only magnify in the near future,” said Kumar, who is organizing this year’s symposium in collaboration with the CLEO Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to climate change education and engagement.

Destructive cyclones like Maria, he said, are just the tip of the iceberg. Longer and more-frequent heat waves, extreme droughts, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions are all playing a role in undermining human health.

“I can’t think of a single disease or disorder that isn’t impacted by climate and weather,” Kumar said. “Take diabetes, for example. In the event of a hurricane, some diabetics might have no other alternative for sustenance than canned foods, which can be loaded with sugar and salt, and that directly impacts their blood sugar levels.”

Many packaged foods, he also pointed out, still contain a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA, which has been linked to birth defects and cancer.

Even the delivery of health care can be affected by weather and climate. While Hurricane Maria only brushed the Outer Banks of North Carolina, sparing the East Coast from its destructive winds and torrential rains, the U.S. mainland felt the cyclone’s wrath in another way, as hospitals across the nation faced widespread shortages of IV bags manufactured at several Puerto Rico factories that were temporarily shut down by the storm.

With immune systems that are still developing, children are often most at risk to disease and conditions spawned or exacerbated by the effects of climate change and weather.

“Children are specifically categorized as ‘vulnerable populations,’ and in addition to their immature immune systems and reduced immunity to disease, they have increased caloric and nutritional needs for appropriate growth and brain development,” said Dr. Lisa Gwynn, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and public health sciences and director of the Miller School’s Pediatric Mobile Clinic. “So, any disruption to the food supply caused by extreme weather directly affects them.”

Children’s ability to regulate temperature is not as efficient as that of adults, leaving them vulnerable to heat-related electrolyte imbalance, high fevers, and kidney and respiratory diseases, Gwynn added. “Climate change is altering air quality, and the environmental effects of wildfires and increased pollen counts are contributing to increases in respiratory illnesses and asthma in children,” she explained.

The topic of how climate is affecting children’s health will be specifically addressed by the first panel at the one-day Climate and Health Symposium. Co-sponsored by the Miami Herbert Business School and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the symposium also will include a workshop focusing on the impact of climate and weather in clinical practice and health care delivery.

With climate’s impact on health still not being given the attention it deserves on the national level, Kumar said the symposium will help ramp up awareness on the issue and provide an additional learning experience for the first cohort of students in the University of Miami’s new Master of Science in Climate and Health program.

Offered by the Miller School of Medicine and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the two-year MSCH graduate program launched last the fall.

The symposium, which starts at 8:30 a.m., is open to the University community, clinicians, researchers, the public, and other stakeholders. A total of 70 complimentary tickets are available to members of the University community. Use UMStudentMillerSchool code to register.