Climate Change Exacerbates Disparate Health Conditions Among Vulnerable Populations, Experts Say

WASHINGTON — This year the United States is experiencing one of the hottest summers on record. Whether that can be attributed to climate change is a question that is being debated. But whatever the reason for extreme weather conditions, whether it is hurricanes or sweltering heat, one thing is certain, researchers say: their impact is greatest on children and other vulnerable populations.

This was the subject of a forum hosted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies on Tuesday, titled “Climate Change, Human Health and the Well-Being of Vulnerable Communities.”

Respiratory conditions disproportionately affect minorities and asthma is the top chronic childhood illness in the United States. Research on the human health consequences of climate change conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has found that asthma, for example, is exacerbated because of increased exposure to pollen because of altered growing seasons, or to molds because of extreme or more frequent precipitation.

“As with almost every other environmental health hazard we face, such changes will likely affect communities with less public health resilience far more than they will the general population and the consequences will be far direr,” said NIEHS program analyst Kimberly Thigpen Tart.

NIEHS is soliciting grant proposals for projects that are specifically targeted to examining health risk factors that may increase the vulnerability of certain populations to exposures, diseases and other adverse health outcomes related to climate change.

Tart said the solicitation is open to any qualified investigator or individual researcher, but individuals from underrepresented ethnic groups are strongly encouraged to apply. The ultimate goal is to get government, community groups and researchers to work together on this issue.

“We need communities to tell us the best way to educate, to inform, and to make this information relevant to your communities and what the best pathways are, such as churches or community centers,” said Tart. “Government agencies often think we know what’s best for the public and that’s not always the case. We’re up against some hard naysayers so we need to make sure we’re doing a good job of helping communities understand that [climate change] is important to them.”

Urban-serving universities and HBCUs can also play a vital role in the effort to mitigate the effects of climate change on children and other vulnerable populations, particularly when it comes to increasing awareness and training environmental scientists.

“Our next generations are key and they’re really going to be dealing with the continued impact of what we’re only beginning to see now,” said Nsedu Obot Witherspoon, executive director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network.

Witherspoon added that environmental science and health should be on curriculums and that institutions should take advantage of the many speakers available to address these issues on campuses.

Dr. Mary Hayden, a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said that her organization offers a summer internship program for minority students called Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research, or SOARS. The program pays for the students’ travel expenses, salaries, and room and board. They can work every summer for four years or more with a scientist or a group of scientists on projects of interest to them, according to Hayden.

NIEHS also offers a number of programs directed at minority students from the high school to postgraduate levels. They include a Summers of Discovery, during which high school and college students can spend the summer working in the institute’s labs.

Details of this and other programs can be found here.