picture of high waves hitting houses on the coast
Photo courtesy David Baird, Geograph creative commons

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By Stephanie Soucheray

Hot on the heels of the White House statement on climate change, North Carolina researchers are sharing their findings on climate change’s potential to impact North Carolinians’ health.

And they’re finding that North Carolina possesses unique vulnerabilities because of its varied geography, vulnerable coastline and rural populations.

Photo courtesy David Baird, Geograph creative commons

Last October, researchers and scientists along with municipal leaders convened at the sixth-annual Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative summit to discuss climate change and public health. Their findings have been recently published and will be summarized in an upcoming editorial in Environmental Health Perspectives, published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

“One of the things that was helpful and interesting that came out of the workshop, something we’re trying to promote on a federal level, is good collaboration between different sectors to help people respond to increased risk for climate change,” said John Balbus, a senior advisor on climate change at NIEHS.

The researchers presented their findings from working groups and suggested that climate change will continue to lead to adverse weather events along the coast, in both rural and urban areas.

While the National Climate Assessment does provide state-by-state analysis for the country, the collaborative incorporated North Carolina’s vast regional differences when considering how climate change could effect the population.

“We have mountains, the Piedmont and the coast to consider,” said Martin Armes, spokesperson for the collaborative.

Balbus agreed and said the variety of the state’s geography was one of the recurring themes of the workshop.

“One of the things that’s interesting about North Carolina is our varied vulnerabilities,” he said. “Land and agricultural workers are effected by high heat and flooding, for example.”

Balbus said he crafted the summit to capture the differences among these areas and determine what’s similar so researchers can attack climate-change problems in the most efficient ways possible.

“We need to bring together people who are front lines of health in North Carolina,” he said. “Mayors, people from local health departments, industry leaders [have to] work together to attack climate-change health threats.

The threat to the coastline represents the potentially biggest loss of revenue for the state, as tourism, fishing and other industry rely on a healthy coastline. Flooding, sea-level rise and damaged infrastructure are the main threats to public health on the coast, according to the collaborative’s editorial.

Rural areas, which tend to be agricultural hubs in the state, could suffer the most from temperature rises.

“This is a warm state, and the heat can be a threat to people in the summer months, especially the elderly,” said Balbus. The editorial makes mention of a dearth of medical centers, cooling centers and other places for medical care in rural areas.

There was also concern raised over environmental-justice issues, including access to water sources. In urban areas, air pollution and disaster management were the main issues.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt spoke at the meeting, and emphasized the role the state’s universities – including UNC – will have in finding solutions to the problems posed by climate change. Armes said the collaborative’s next step is to convene a planning committee to develop official recommendations.

The Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative was organized in 2006 as an environmental-health think tank to identify and discuss environmental-health problems, given the unique research concentration in the area. The group is nonpartisan and, Balbus said, does not look at climate change as a political issue.

“Climate change is a health issue everyone should be concerned with,” he said.

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