Celebrities are Hot on Global Warming
By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
"The most important thing to understand is that global warming
is happening now - not ten years from now - but right now," says actress Mimi
Rogers, a founding board member of ECO. "It's happening as we speak. So unless
we all want to become aquatic, we better do something pretty soon."
A lot sooner than you might think.
According to climate experts the ten hottest years on record have occurred
in the last 15 years. In the last century the average temperature only increased
one degree. But the UN sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
has projected temperature increases as high as 10.4 degrees over the next 100
"To put that in perspective, the upper end of this projected increase is about
the same swing in the opposite direction that occurred during the last ice age,"
says Kevin Knobloch, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Scientists believe that global warming and the associated effects will create
a range of changes - increased temperature, more erratic weather, rising sea
level -- that may adversely affect human health.
"In terms of human health, we likely will see water shortages, famine, and
increased infectious and respiratory diseases," Knobloch notes.
"I think the health of the people of this country - the air they breathe, the
water they drink and the food they eat - is of paramount importance," says benefit
attendee Tim Matheson, who recently played the Vice President on The West
Wing. "These will all be influenced adversely by global warming."
"As a parent it concerns me about our children's health and future," Sedgwick
says. "Not just children in this country but all over the world. Global warming
is here right now and it's getting worse."
And when it comes to our health, global warming may have an even deadlier bite
"In general, climate restricts the range of infectious diseases but it is the
weather that affects the timing and intensity of outbreaks of disease," says
Dr. Paul R. Epstein, associate director, Center for Health and the Global Environment
at Harvard Medical School. "So it is the extreme weather events -- wide swings
like droughts punctuated by heavy rains -- that have significant impacts on
the biological systems that underpin our health."
Epstein says that infectious disease could dramatically increase if global
warming continues unabated. The major diseases that respond most to environmental
change are the mosquito-borne illnesses:
- Dengue fever
- West Nile fever
In the United States, West Nile fever poses an immediate and deadly threat.
While West Nile is asymptomatic in many people, it can cause flu-like symptoms,
fever, and most seriously, encephalitis, which can be fatal. This is what happened
in New York in 1999 when 7 of the 66 people infected died. In the summer of
2002 - West Nile caused 4,156 cases across the US and 284 deaths.
"We also have learned that West Nile plays new tricks," Epstein notes. "It
can be transmitted via blood transfusions and blood products, organ transplants,
pregnancy and probably breast milk. So we now face an entirely new issue with
respect to the safety of our blood supply." The UK has just banned blood donations
from summer travelers to the US for two months following their visits.
Unfortunately, the news doesn't get better.
According to Epstein, the urban-dwelling, bird-biting mosquito responsible
for spreading West Nile - Culex pipiens - thrives in drought conditions.
And global warming of land surfaces and oceans are producing more prolonged
"It appears paradoxical because one thinks of rain and flood plains for mosquitoes,
but these urban-dwelling Culex pipiens thrive in drought," Epstein explains.
"What happens during drought is the street corner drains have a little water
left in them that becomes organically rich with leaf and other litter. This
fosters optimal conditions for Culex pipiens."
As a serious drought now grips much of the western US, many experts, like Epstein,
are projecting that the biggest explosion of West Nile yet could well occur
this summer. To help people try to avoid getting bitten or sick, the American
Mosquito Control Association is sponsoring National Mosquito Awareness week
A few good solutions
Aside from reducing greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming and
more drought, there are protective measures that people can employ.
Cities and towns can release bacteria larvicides that kill the mosquito larvae
before they become adults.
"Some municipalities are already doing this in the East and parts of the West,"
Epstein says. "But this should be done in virtually every city in the US this
Other prevention measures include:
- Removing any standing water from their property
- Reporting any dead birds to state and local health departments
- Lobbying -- insist that your town enact prevention programs
On an individual level, people can avoid or reduce being outdoors during peak
mosquito hours - generally from dusk until dawn. Also recommended is:
- Wearing long-sleeved shirts and pants to provide a barrier.
- Repairing or installing screens
- Using repellents such as N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET).
While DEET is the most powerful and commonly used repellent, some people are
concerned about toxicity issues, especially with children. For those concerned
Epstein recommends citronella-oil based products, which are far less toxic,
but must be re-applied every 20 minutes or so.
"If you want to wear DEET, you can spray it on your clothes which is probably
safer than putting it on your skin," Epstein notes. But experts advise that
you never spray DEET-containing repellents under your clothing.
Ultimately, Epstein says that protecting yourself and your family from West
Nile and the spread of such emerging diseases implies a personal and national
commitment to stopping global warming.
"We are at a level of carbon dioxide that exceeds anything we have seen in
the last 420,000 years," Epstein urges. "We are outside that envelope and are
in uncharted waters. We have de-stabilized our climate system -- the warming
and erratic weather are affecting biological systems and our health. We must
reduce our greenhouse gas emissions now."
"The good news is that energy efficiency and clean energy technologies generate
jobs," Epstein adds. "Provided the proper incentives, the clean energy transition
can be a "win-win" for the economy and the environment."
"If we don't make it clearer to our politicians that this is vitally important
to each and every one of us, then we will pay the price," Sedgwick warns.
"But before people get overwhelmed by the enormity of the issue we're facing,
we have to realize that if we all pitch in we can make a big positive impact,"
Rogers says. "One person can make a difference."
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Created: 7/7/2003  - John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 7/7/2003  - Donnica Moore, M.D.