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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia, Washington Study Highlights Public Health Impact of Climate Change on US Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast is one of the most vulnerable regions of the United States to climate change, and a comprehensive adaptation strategy is essential to reduce threats to population health, according to a new study from Columbia University and the University of Washington School of Public Health.

Kris Ebi_high_res
[Photo: Dr. Kristie Ebi]

The public health impacts on the Gulf Coast states – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida – may be “especially severe,” the authors write in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The region is expected to experience increases in extreme temperatures, sea level rise, and possibly more intense hurricanes.

“It’s a timely study on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” said co-author Dr. Kristie Ebi, professor of global health and of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington. “It points out the vulnerability of the Gulf Coast and the potential for adverse health effects.”

Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, inundating cities such as New Orleans, claiming more than 1,800 lives, and causing more than $100 billion in damage.

“The next few decades are likely to bring more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate events,” said Dr. Ebi, who added that every region in the United States is vulnerable in some way. “The current challenges associated with wildfires in the West are an example.”

The new study, led by Dr. Elisaveta Petkova of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Earth Institute, says that without additional public health preventive measures, more extreme weather events and warmer temperatures could lead to even more deaths and injuries, an increase of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue fever and malaria, and long-term physical and mental health problems. Already vulnerable communities could be disproportionately affected.

“Echoing an observation from the disaster research literature, the world’s poor and powerless are likely to suffer not just disproportionately from climate change, but fatally,” the authors write.

Researchers reviewed previously published data to provide an overview of the projected health impacts. They also proposed various adaptation measures, ranging from programs that would provide air conditioning to low-income households to improving infrastructure to withstand rises in sea levels.