UW News

September 18, 2009

UW researchers to study impacts of climate change on health in the Pacific Northwest

Environmental & Occupational Health

Climate change will have serious and long-term consequences for public health, with effects that will vary from community to community across the country.


To help learn more about the effects, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have awarded researchers at the University of Washington nearly one million dollars over the next three years. Scientists will evaluate the impact of climate change on human health in the Pacific Northwest, work with local communities to study health risks that will likely occur in the next 35 years and uncover how communities might mitigate those risks.


“The information people hear about health impacts of climate change tends to be broad and without solid evidence,” said Dr. Richard Fenske, professor and acting chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences. “The public is told that these health impacts are occurring or are likely to occur in the near future. And the claims leave the public apprehensive, but with no clear direction on how to prepare.”


UW research on this topic aims to develop an evidence-based forecast of health impacts for different communities. “The evidence will empower public health officials to develop specific plans of action to prevent health risks associated with climate change,” said Fenske.


Health risks associated with climate change on a global scale include severe weather events, increased air pollution, infectious diseases related to changes in vector biology and food and water contamination and shortages. Scientists also expect to see more indirect impacts from climate change such as large-scale migration and civil conflict, all of which increase rates of disease and death.


The University of Washington team, which includes faculty from two departments in the School of Public Health as well as the UW Climate Impacts Group, will investigate two of these key climate and health concerns here in the Northwest: heat-related illness and worsening air quality.


Relatively short but intense heat waves over the last 30 years have been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the United States and Canada, and thousands of deaths in Europe. Climate projections suggest that these events will become more frequent, more intense and longer lasting in the remainder of the 21st century.


The greatest impacts will be in cities with milder summers, less air conditioning and higher population density, which are characteristic of the Pacific Northwest. The heat wave from July 26 to August 2, 2009, for example, set a record-breaking high of 103°F (39°C), based on local weather reports.


During this period, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency reported an increase in ozone levels for some areas, and also issued an advisory that air quality reached the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category, which affects children, people with heart and lung problems, and adults over age 65.


Fenske was a senior author in a June 2009 report to the Washington State Legislature that documented excess mortality during heat events in the greater Seattle area over the past 25 years. The report also predicted significantly more heat- and air pollution-related deaths in Washington in the years to come.


“This kind of solid, scientific information will better motivate communities to respond,” said Dr. Susan Allan, director of the UW’s Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, and an associate professor in the Department of Health Services. “People are more likely to take action to protect health when they have data specific to their own community.”


Allan said local communities will be active partners in shaping the research from the very first stages of the project. “We want to make sure the particular risks and circumstances of the different groups in the community are included as part of the modeling and of the community discussions.”



Contacts: Richard Fenske,  professor, acting chair, Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, 206-616-1958 rfenske@u.washington.edu;  Susan Allan, associate professor, health services and director, Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, 206-685-1130, susallan@u.washington.edu.