"Climate change will impact every aspect of life in the Commonwealth… The question now is not whether the climate is changing, but how we are going to adapt as a state to the impacts on our economy, public health, and the natural environment." - State Rep. Frank Smizik, House Committee on Global Warming & Climate Change
There is widespread agreement among climate scientists that the Earth is warming due to human activity. Changes in climate will undoubtedly affect human health and welfare in Massachusetts both directly (e.g., extreme weather-related events and heat-related illness) and indirectly (e.g., increase in vector-borne diseases). Climate change will affect the quality of the air we breathe, the structural integrity and indoor environmental conditions in homes and buildings, the quality and quantity of water we consume, the food supply, and vector-borne illnesses that will rise. While climate change is inherently a global problem, its public health impacts will be experienced most acutely at the local and regional level.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) Bureau of Environmental Health (BEH) has an overall mission of protecting the public health from a variety of environmental exposures. It responds to environmental health concerns and provides communities with epidemiologic and toxicological health assessments. The MDPH/BEH is actively working with local health partners and other state and federal agencies to address the public health impacts of climate change. Below is a summary of the projects to date as well as links for more information.
Establishing an Agency-Wide Climate Change Advisory Committee
Massachusetts Executive Order No. 484 "Leading by Example - Clean Energy and Efficient Buildings" highlights the responsibility that state government in Massachusetts has to reduce the environmental and health impacts related to energy consumption, and be a model for businesses and private citizens. As part of this effort, the MDPH formed an advisory committee on climate change, co-chaired by Suzanne Condon, Associate Commissioner and Director of the Bureau of Environmental Health and Andy Epstein, Special Assistant to the MDPH Commissioner, to raise awareness and lead conservation efforts within the department. The MDPH Committee, known as the "Green-Team", is comprised of staff from across the Department with sub-groups to specifically address energy, recycling, public health, and outreach. For example, the "Green-Team" encourages Department staff to turn off lights and electronic devices when not in use, recycle paper and redeemable cans.
Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee (MCCAAC)
In May 2009, the Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary created the MCCAAC committee, under the authority provided in the state's 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act. The committee's mission was to study and make recommendations on strategies for adapting to climate change. The panel included members representing transportation and built infrastructure; commercial, industrial and manufacturing organizations; consumer groups; utilities, conservation groups, and local government. The committee also included experts in public health, insurance, forestry, agriculture, and public safety. MDPH/BEH has been a key participant in this project and co-chairs along with the state's Department of Environmental Protection, the workgroup on Health and Human Welfare. The workgroup analyzed information on public health infrastructure, vector-borne diseases, heat stress, allergens, respiratory and cardiovascular disease, extreme weather, indoor and outdoor air quality, water quality and sanitation, agriculture and food systems and specific information relating to vulnerable populations. For each of these areas, the workgroup identified existing resources, vulnerabilities, and adaptation strategies to protect human health. A full copy of the report may be found at the Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report .
Participating in Environmental Public Health Tracking Climate Change Activities
The MDPH/BEH has developed a web-based portal that provides access to health and environmental information for all Massachusetts communities. CDC's Environmental Public Health Tracking Climate Change Content Workgroup is developing national measures to assess public health impacts of climate change. Current efforts include developing a measure for tracking heat related illness/hospitalizations and mortality. The climate change workgroup is also working collaboratively with the National Weather Service to evaluate the thresholds used to issue heat watches, warnings and related advisories.
CDC-funded Climate Change Grant to Strengthen Local Board's of Health Response to Climate Change
The MDPH/BEH is one of ten agencies across the United States to be awarded a three-year cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct an assessment of current gaps in public health preparedness to address climate change and further develop plans to address public health impacts related to climate change.
While climate change is inherently a global problem, its public health impacts will be experienced most acutely at the local and regional level, with some jurisdictions likely to be more burdened than others. Some residents will be more susceptible to the effects of climate change, and adaptive change may be more difficult for them. The populations most vulnerable to adverse health results are those with limited resources to take protective and adaptive measures, or recover after losses; as well as those coping with existing chronic illnesses and/or physical limitations that could be aggravated by the expected climatic changes. A focus on vulnerable populations requires an understanding of community or population characteristics, conditions that could contribute to a disproportionate risk, and obstacles to resiliency.
The assessment of local boards of health is a very important initial step of the analysis. Questions in the survey address workforce, material, communication and training needs on issues related to planning, intervention and response to vector-borne diseases (ticks, mosquitoes) and other illnesses, heat stress, hazardous weather events, water and sewer issues, indoor environment, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and food and agricultural issues.
Heat Stress Vulnerability Assessment
MDPH/BEH is one of five states participating in the Academic Partners in Excellence (APEX) project, led by the University of California at Berkeley. APEX compares measures of heat stress vulnerability to actual extremes in temperature in urban areas around the country. This project is being led by the BEH Environmental Toxicology Program. The Heat Vulnerability Index (HVI) contains a number of factors that impact vulnerability to heat-related illness and death. These include the amount of green space, the percentage of residents with chronic disease (e.g., heart disease, diabetes) and the percent of residents who are disabled or live alone. The project is using the HVI at a zip code level and looking at mortality and morbidity (via hospitalization) for a variety of potential heat-related or heat-exacerbated causes. The MDPH/BEH also evaluates the same question using different methods for assigning temperatures to locations for comparison and is doing a separate analysis of mortality and heat over the period between 1990 and 2008.
Tracking Harmful Algae Blooms (HABs) and Health Impacts
In 2008, MDPH/BEH was one of 10 states awarded funding from CDC to conduct harmful algae bloom (HAB) monitoring and surveillance. [In fresh water bodies HABs are caused by population explosions of cyanobacteria (aka blue-green algae). Some types of cyanobacteria are capable of producing toxins harmful to people and animals. Contact with freshwater HABs may cause skin and eye irritation. Incidental ingestion while recreating may cause gastrointestinal symptoms. Ingesting large amounts of toxins may cause liver or neurological damage.] The public health goal of the project is to prevent exposures to HABs through recreational use, drinking water, or food contamination. Potential health impacts from HABs are evaluated by collecting and analyzing environmental and health data. MDPH/BEH collects routine samples on a weekly basis for a minimum of 12 weeks at five locations across the state. In addition, MDPH/BEH responds to all reports of blooms and conducts illness surveillance on possible/actual health effects from exposure to HABs.
Other Related Climate Change Activities
Monitoring of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning
Massachusetts is a coastal state subject to major weather variability including storms, flooding of both marine and freshwater sources, hurricanes and related events. An area rich in water resources, the state is also subject to climactic variations that may serve as indicators of climate change and related health effects. Seafood is a major industry in Massachusetts and foodborne illness occurrences may serve as an indicator of climate change. Paralytic shellfish poisoning associated with "red tide" impacts consumers and the shellfish industry while precipitation events (e.g., severe rain fall and flooding) often affect both drinking water and recreational water quality.
The Food Protection Program (FPP) collaborates with Environmental Toxicology Program on the response to "red tide" and paralytic shellfish poisoning. The FPP participates in a MDPH working group on foodborne illness, maintains an FDA-funded Rapid Response Team for the investigation of foodborne outbreaks and product contamination, and has regulatory control over food safety, which may be impacted by changes in climate as noted above.
Indoor Air Quality
Population density and highly developed, urbanized land puts many areas of the state at risk for climate change-induced disasters. These include toxic exposures due to floods, building damage, and related indoor air quality problems and health concerns, as well as increases in vector borne disease.
The Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Program conducts indoor environmental investigations of schools and other public buildings. This includes measuring for mold and bacterial growth in the indoor environment. The IAQ program also provides training and technical guidance to the local boards of health on residential housing inspections. IAQ responds to emergencies in which conditions such a toxic release threaten indoor air quality and population health. For example, IAQ participated in the response to the flooding in New England in March 2010, providing information to local boards of health on flooding response. Hundreds of Massachusetts residents sought information on how to best clean/remediate mold contamination. The program routinely responds to requests from schools and local boards of health for technical assistance on a variety of emergencies involving the indoor environment.
Links for Additional Information on Climate Change
American Public Health Association Environment
This is the American Public Health Association's (APHA) environmental webpage which includes Climate Change information and a climate change guidebook and public health fact sheet.
Association of State and Territorial Health Officials
ASTHO is helping states prepare for the possibility of health effects related to climate change including building climate change capacity. Webinars of topics related to health impacts of climate change are available on this website.
CDC's Climate Change Program
As you might expect from the CDC, this website is a great starting point for people who want to read more or even view webinars about climate change impacts on health.
Health Canada's Climate Change
This is Canada's Public Health site that discusses climate change and its public health impacts. It is a good resource because of the perspective on the public health work; their objective is parallel to CDC's and they are taking slightly different actions to meet that objective.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
This is the website of the leading international body on climate change that was set up by the United Nations. It is the group that releases the assessments on the state of the global climate for use by policy makers. Their assessments are important because they're influential and a good baseline for the extent of our scientific understanding of climate change.
MA Department of Environmental Protection Climate Change
This is a page with MA specific information, including reporting information, regulatory information and general climate change information.
National Climatic Data Center - Climate FAQs
This website is a great source for graphs and descriptions of evidence that the climate is changing. If read straight through it is a good primer on how climate scientists understand climate change.
US EPA's Climate Change
The EPA's website has plenty of well organized information on climate change. The links include both human health impacts and ecological impacts. There is also some information on what individuals can do to reduce their impact on the climate, as well as links to current US regulatory initiatives.
United Nations Climate Change Portal
This site is the UN's Climate Change site which shows how different parts of the world are affected, related agreements between countries, and has an overview of the issues.
US Global Change Research Program
This program is a federal interagency cooperative which coordinates and integrates federal research on the changes in the global climate and their implications on society.
National Association of County and City Health Officials Climate Change
This site is very similar in content to the APHA website, but it has a few unique and notable aspects. One of these aspects is links to different Local Health Department (LHD) websites and how they are responding to the broad impacts of Climate Change, as examples for other LHDs.