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Greenhouse gas curbs would make us healthier, study finds

If you require still more evidence about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, here’s another finding to consider: Cutting emissions will have a beneficial impact on human health, medical experts say.

Researchers say cost savings realized from improving health will offset the cost of addressing climate change and, therefore, should be considered as part of all policy discussions related to climate change, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) said in a statement today.

NIEHS pointed to case studies on four climate change topics–household energy, transportation, electricity generation, and agricultural food production–published in the medical journal The Lancet.

“Each study in the series examines the health implications of actions in high- and low-income countries designed to reduce the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Climate change due to emission of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel energy sources causes air pollution by increasing ground-level ozone and concentrations of fine particulate matter,” NIEHS explained.

Here are the results of the investigations:

  • The household energy research shows that introducing low-emission stove technology, specifically replacing biomass stoves in India, could improve respiratory health. The study says the technology is one of the most cost-effective climate-health linkages, given that indoor air pollution from inefficient cooking stoves increases respiratory infections in children and chronic heart disease in adults.
  • The transportation study shows that cutting emissions by reducing motor vehicle use and increasing walking and cycling would bring substantial health gains by reducing heart disease and stroke by 10-20 percent, dementia by 8 percent, and depression by 5 percent.
  • The electricity study demonstrates that changing methods of generation to reduce carbon dioxide, such as using wind turbines, would reduce particulate air pollution and yield the greatest potential for health-related cost savings in China and India.
  • The food production study shows that the food and agriculture sector contributes about 20 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions, and that a 30 percent reduction in consumption of saturated fats from animal sources would reduce heart disease by about 15 percent while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change threatens us all, but its impact will likely be greatest on the poorest communities in every country,” said Kirk R. Smith, of the University of California, Berkeley, and author on several of the papers. “Carefully choosing how we reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have the added benefit of reducing global health inequities.”

“We are learning that the health of our planet and the health of our people are tied together. It’s difficult for one to thrive without the other,” said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “Climate change is not a problem that one country or one organization can solve on its own. It’s a problem that affects us all.

“If we work to reduce pollution,” Sebelius added. “We will also reduce deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.”

“These papers demonstrate there are clear and substantive improvements for health if we choose the right mitigation strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Linda Birnbaum, director of the NIEHS and National Toxicology Program. “We now have real-life examples of how we can save the environment, reduce air pollution and decrease related health effects; it’s really a win-win situation for everyone.”

The studies were commissioned to help inform discussions at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen in December 2009. Funding was provided by the NIEHS, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and British partners including the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Department of Health, the Economic and Social Research Council, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the National Institute for Health Research, the Royal College of Physicians, and the Wellcome Trust.