GAO: Climate Change Could Cause More: Cardiovascular Disease in Northwest, Allergies on Great Plains, Drownings in Midwest

By Barbara Hollingsworth | November 6, 2015 | 2:48pm EST
(AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Climate-related risks to public health in the United States could include a rise in cardiovascular disease in the Northwest, more allergies in Great Plains states, and an increase in drownings in the Midwest, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Other potential impacts of climate change include a disruption of community water supplies in Alaska, more cases of dengue fever in Hawaii and West Nile virus in the Northeast, higher incidents of heat stress in the Southwest and increased fish poisoning in the Southeast.

Citing the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s (USGCRP) third National Climate Assessment (NCA), GAO warned that “climate change is expected to impact human health in the United States by exacerbating some existing health threats and by posing new risks.”

Besides “heat-related illnesses and deaths,” and “an increase in the length of pollen season,” climate change “may contribute to the spread of vector-borne diseases.”

Extreme weather events, "which are expected to become more common with climate change, are linked with increases in injuries, deaths, and mental health problems, such as anxieity and post-traumatic stress disorder," the report added.

“The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gasses emitted globally, and how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to those emissions."

GAO notes that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) requires state and local public health departments participating in its $3.6 million Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative to “take steps to raise public awareness about the risks that climate change poses to public health.”

The initiative is “the only HHS financial resource that has been offered to state and local public health departments that directly targets these risks,” GAO pointed out.

Cities and states are also using CDC’s $22.6 million National Environmental Public Health Tracking Program, which includes “indicators on climate change, among other environmental hazards, related to extreme heat exposure” and its $611.1 million Public Health Emergency Preparedness program to support their climate change activities.

But local public health officials who have used the federal money to hire “dedicated staff within their departments to work on this issue,” are reporting difficulty in communicating the warning message to the public.

Difficulties include “challenges in identifying potential health risks of climate change as a result of research gaps” and “insufficient data on health impacts,” according to the performance audit, which GAO conducted between June 2014 and September 2015.

State and local health officials told GAO that “it is difficult to develop messages about climate change impacts on health because of uncertainties inherent in climate change projections…[and] because some of the potential effects have not yet been observed in their jurisdictions.”

“State and local officials find it difficult to communicate and bring attention to long-term issues, such as climate change, when there are immediate public health concerns drawing attention, such as the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak.”

As a result, "only about one-quarter of all states have incorporated public health considerations into their statewide climate adaptation plans," according to the report.

"A federally-led public awareness campaign… could help and provide legitimacy to the work of public health officials in addressing and planning for these risks… and increase climate literacy,” GAO recommended. 

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