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Message from the President: Climate Change and Respiratory Disease

December 2012
Monica Kraft, MD

Monica Kraft, MD

Hurricane Sandy hit the mid-Atlantic states particularly hard and affected most of the Eastern Seaboard. Whether it’s the result of global warming and a harbinger of extreme weather to come is a subject for debate. It is clear, however, that our planet is growing hotter and that our climate is changing, which has led the Society to begin analyzing the scientific evidence about its relationship to respiratory disease.

While the ATS has long been providing information and advocating for cleaner air, its work on global warming is much more recent. I’d like to use my column to bring you up to date.

In January, the ATS Board of Directors approved the document “An Official American Thoracic Workshop Report: Climate Change and Human Health.” The report was based on a workshop held during ATS 2010 in New Orleans with domestic and international experts as well as representatives of international respiratory societies and key U.S. federal agencies.

The group identified several necessary research questions for climate change and respiratory health. Among those questions are: How does climate change affect the distribution of respiratory disease? How does extreme heat affect vulnerable populations including the young, elderly, and those with chronic cardiorespiratory problems? How does climate change affect air pollution?

The workshop was co-chaired by Kent E. Pinkerton, PhD, and William N. Rom, MD, MPH. (In this issue of ATS News, Dr. Rom has contributed an account of the challenges his medical complexes in Manhattan faced in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.)

Drs. Rom, Pinkerton, and their workshop colleagues outline immediate steps such as calling for medical societies to issue guidelines for medical alerts related to heat, and the formulation and implementation of public health measures to be taken during heat waves and times of severe air pollution, flooding, and rainfall. They recommend the creation of cross-disciplinary training programs at public health and medical schools that would produce experts, as well as infrastructure to better track pollen and air quality nationally and internationally.

If you haven’t yet read the report, I strongly encourage you to do so: “An Official ATS Workshop Report: Climate Change and Human Health.” You can also find links to webinars on climate change produced by the CDC, the UN, NASA, and the EPA on the Environmental & Occupational Health Assembly’s website.

The ATS has been active in other ways on the climate change issue, as well as other important environmental issues. Members of the Environmental Health Policy Committee and other ATS representatives have presented testimony before the EPA and submitted comment on the agency’s “endangerment finding” that describes the likely adverse health effects from climate change as the effects of ozone and particulates. Additionally, the ATS crafted the resolution on climate change that the American Medical Association adopted in 2010 and submitted to the EPA.

Beyond global warming, the ATS has continued its legacy of fighting for cleaner air that began with advocating passing the Clean Air Act in 1970.

The Environmental Health Policy Committee serves to support the EPA Clean Air research program, the EPA standards for air pollutants, and EPA Clean Air enforcement program.

Committee Chair John R. Balmes, MD, and Vice Chair George D. Thurston, DSc, submitted an editorial in the December issue of the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology that calls on the EPA to establish more stringent ambient air quality standards. Last month, ATS Executive Director Stephen C. Crane, PhD, MPH, traveled to Washington to speak on the issue before the EPA and other public officials. (The Advocate column reports on his visit in this issue of ATS News.). The ATS Executive Committee meets with EPA leaders yearly and did so in September 2012. In addition, the Executive Committee, Research Advocacy Committee, and the Patient Advisory Roundtable travel to Capitol Hill each spring with important messages related to clean air and support for the EPA.

The EOH Assembly, which is spotlighted in this issue, also promotes the discussion of environmental lung disease related to air pollution, occupational exposure, tobacco smoke, and other environmental factors, and places emphasis on epidemiological and laboratory approaches. As EOH Assembly Chair Paul Henneberger, MPH, ScD, notes, the assembly’s focus has shifted more towards the environmental versus occupational factors of pulmonary diseases.

Science supporting climate change and air pollution is consistent and compelling, and as a medical society concerned ultimately with improving our patients’ health, I’m proud that the ATS is expanding its scope of research, education, and advocacy to include raising awareness of the role of the environment in human health.

Last Reviewed: September 2017