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Heat Advisory: Protecting Health on a Warming Planet
by Dr. Alan Lockwood

Drawing on peer-reviewed scientific and medical research, Dr. Lockwood meticulously details the symptoms of climate change and their medical side effects.

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Barb Gottlieb's Testimony at EPA Carbon Pollution Hearing

Testimony of Barbara Gottlieb, Director of Environment and Health
Physicians for Social Responsibility
On the proposed “Standards of Performance for Greenhouse Gas Emissions for New Stationary Sources: Electric Utility Generating Units”
Docket ID No. EPAHQ-OAR-2011-0660

May 24, 2012
Washington, DC

My name is Barbara Gottlieb. I am the Director of Environment and Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national organization of health professionals that works to protect human life from the gravest threats to health and survival. I speak on behalf of PSR’s 40,000 members and activists in voicing our support for the EPA’s proposed rule for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

As you know, climate change is acknowledged by scientists around the world to be real, and to be caused primarily by human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels. As the earth warms, the delicate balance of climate, weather, water and life is disrupted. The consequences threaten human health and, ultimately, survival. This makes the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution rule for electric utility generating units one of the most important actions you can take to protect human health and well-being.

The world is warming; 2011 was one of the warmest years on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Longer-term, the chance of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius this century is getting slimmer and slimmer, according to the International Energy Agency. Significantly, the IEA's chief economist recently attributed that pessimistic assessment to the continuing construction of power plants. ("What I see now with existing investments for plants under construction... [is] we are seeing the door for a 2 degree Celsius target about to be closed and closed forever." Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist, addressing a Reuters' Global Energy & Environment Summit.)

Warming has grave and immediate consequences for human health, which will be the focus of my remarks today. Global warming is predicted to increase the frequency of extreme heat events or heat waves, which can cause serious heat-related illnesses and can lead to death. The most common is heat exhaustion, which in turn can progress to heat stroke. The clinical definition of heat stroke includes a core body temperature of 105°F or more and central nervous system abnormalities such as delirium, convulsions, or coma. With effects like these, heat waves can and do cause mortality, often related to cardiovascular, cerebrovascular, and respiratory causes, especially preexisting illnesses.

Extreme heat events are already a significant public health problem in the U.S., responsible for more deaths annually than hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. The health impact of extreme heat events will likely be exacerbated in the future by the synergistic effects of a warming climate, urbanization, and an aging population. Advanced age represents one of the most significant risk factors for heat-temperature: Elderly people have diminished ability to regulate body temperature; they generally experience poorer health; and they are more likely to live alone and have reduced social contacts, further increasing their vulnerability. This vulnerable group is growing as the elderly become an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population.

The urban poor are also highly vulnerable to extreme heat exposure. City environments hold more heat, creating the “urban heat island” phenomenon. After absorbing heat during the daytime, the urban heat island radiates it out at night, raising nighttime minimum temperatures – a phenomenon which has been linked epidemiologically with excess mortality. People with certain pre-existing medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses, obesity, neurologic or psychiatric disease, are vulnerable. That encompasses a wide swath of the American public.

Rising temperatures also worsen air quality and the risk of respiratory disease. Ozone formation increases with increasing temperature, and ozone contributes to asthma and other chronic lung diseases. In addition, a 2009 study indicates that ozone exposure is associated with a heightened risk of death from respiratory causes, and that long-term, low-level exposure can be lethal. This is very worrisome, given that other research suggests that ozone concentrations in the U.S. may increase between 5–10 percent over the next 50 years purely as a result of climate change.

Because time is short, I have presented only a part of PSR’s concerns about the health impacts of climate change. I have entered into the docket a full, footnoted version of this testimony, as well as information about climate change effects on human health related to extreme weather, floods and droughts; water-borne and insect-borne diseases; wildfires; impact on crop yields and the food supply; vulnerable populations; and the less-known but very real dangers of mental health effects due to climate change.

I have also entered into the docket the names and addresses of 2,180 PSR members who have added their support for this very important proposed EPA rule. These signatures are a small indication of the importance PSR places on this first federal action for nationwide reduction of greenhouse gases. We look forward to a strong rule and, in the future, more comprehensive steps to protect our health and our world from carbon pollution, including from existing coal-fired power plants. Thank you.

Page Updated August 9, 2013

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