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Program investigates climate impact on humans

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Compared to the breakneck pace of daily life for an average UW student, climate change occurring over decades or longer is a creeping, almost imperceptible phenomenon.

Its effects, however, may have significant impacts on humanity.

An interdisciplinary team of UW health researchers is working to measure the consequences of climate change for human health in Washington state.

The group, Climate Change and Human Health Impacts Team (CHIT), was formed in response to a specific mandate from Gov. Chris Gregoire in her Washington Climate Change Challenge, issued as Executive Order 07-02 earlier this year.

"Our charge is fairly direct," said Roger Rosenblatt, professor of family medicine and head of CHIT. "[We aim to] investigate the links between change in climate and human health. The climate science is well described, but there is much to say in terms of the impact on human health."

The team's expertise crosses disciplines and encompasses subjects such as infectious diseases, pediatrics and occupational health. The four-member team will use its collective prowess to undertake a broad survey of demonstrated and potential links between climate change and human health. It will then go on to study those links' dynamics and apply its findings with respect to implications for people living in Washington state.

"The Legislature was also interested in human health impacts, and House Bill 1303 provided further basis and the funding for the teams' formation. At that point I brought together a group of faculty researchers to compose the team," Rosenblatt said of the group's impetus.

Rosenblatt expressed enthusiasm at the team's novelty.

"The thing that's new is moving beyond speculation," he said. "No one has gone to the next step of producing quantitative information to support these assertions. We want to provide the best predictions that science can support."

The team will utilize existing literature, past climate data from the State Climate Office, and future climate scenarios from the UW's Climate Impacts Group (CIG) to create equations that describe and predict the ramifications for facets of human health. Examples include investigating changes in the range of infectious diseases, air quality impacts on children and heat stress experienced by agricultural workers.

CHIT member Ann Marie Kimball, UW professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, provided a clear overview.

"We intend to put together an account of what we would need to know and what methods we would want to use to understand," she said. "We're working on those initial steps now, after which a variety of further study will commence."

CHIT is just one part of a wider assessment at the UW of climate change impacts in Washington state. The broader study, led by Edward Miles, professor of marine studies and public affairs, aims for a comprehensive analysis of a variety of sectors critical to the state's sustenance, ranging from agriculture and ecosystems to energy and water resources.

Recently, CHIT began working in partnership with the Human Health Preparation and Adaptation Work Group (PAWG), a part of the state's Climate Advisory Team.

"The two groups are already totally integrated and will continue to work in concert toward the initial joint report by December of 2007. This will set the stage for ongoing work by CHIT," said Gregg Grunenfelder, assistant secretary for environmental health for the Washington State Department of Health and chair of the Human Health PAWG.

Besides providing a wider knowledge base, the initial cooperation will also help to make the $1.5 million appropriated to the broader project by the last Legislature more efficacious. This year's Legislature also apportioned $1.5 million to CIG for the climate assessments associated with the project.

CHIT will submit a final report describing its findings in late 2008.

[Reach contributing writer Brian Smoliak at news@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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