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Home > News > Global Health Matters > Global Health Matters Jul/Aug 2020 > NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) explores global environmental change and health Print

NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) explores global environmental change and health

July / August 2020 | Volume 19, Number 4

In Senegal, six researchers, some wearing gloves and boots, standing and seated on dry ground next to calm body of water.
Image courtesy of Upstream Alliance

Environmental changes can have unintended health
consequences. In Senegal, researchers introduced prawns to
prey on disease-carrying snails, which proliferated after a
dam was built.

Close up for three snails in shells held in the palm of a hand.
Image courtesy of Upstream

Snails can cause a parasitic
worm disease.

By Susan Scutti

The Diama Dam is just 18 meters high, yet its 1986 construction changed the local Senegal River ecology into a fresh-water habitat for snails. Proliferation of the gastropods led to an unanticipated outbreak of schistosomiasis, a parasitic worm disease. Fogarty-supported research suggested a simple solution of stocking the river with prawns, a natural snail predator. The result? Reduced incidence of schistosomiasis and improved health within the community, which not only gained a dietary protein source but also a new cash crop. “A key lesson in planetary health thinking is that hazards are often accompanied by opportunities,” said Dr. Howard Frumkin in his keynote address for the fourth annual Global Environmental Health Day, hosted by the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

In setting the agenda for global environmental health research, Frumkin says scientists need to address overarching challenges - climate change, biodiversity loss and others - not just in terms of characterizing the issues but also in seeking multiple solutions for each. “We need to do this work urgently because these problems are very pressing,” Frumkin observed, “and the time we have to solve problems is limited.” He also encouraged researchers to collaborate across multiple sectors including health, energy, agriculture and transportation, and to stay focused on the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Each of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals either directly or indirectly impact human health, Frumkin noted. The goal of “affordable and clean energy,” for example, may be satisfied by hydroelectric power today, yet policymakers must consider whether tomorrow’s droughts and reduced snowmelt caused by climate change will decrease water flow and render this energy source unsustainable, said the University of Washington Professor Emeritus. Dams typically alter river hydrology, which may increase risks of schistosomiasis, malaria and vector-borne illnesses. “Energy policy is health policy,” stated the former Fogarty grantee.

Weaving a related theme into her presentation, Dr. Michelle Bell discussed smoke waves caused by wildfires. “Under climate change, wildfires are anticipated to occur more frequently and burn more intensely,” explained the Yale University professor. Her NIEHS-funded research estimated a 7.2% higher risk of respiratory hospital admission among Western U.S. residents exposed to smoke waves between 2004 and 2009. Interactions of weather and health are complex and depend on many factors, including geography, building structures and demographics, explained Bell. As climates alter, Alaska can anticipate an increase in wildfire smoke, yet exposure and health effects will not be distributed uniformly. Some indigenous populations will likely suffer the most, she said, based on research supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD).

A current project, funded by Wellcome Trust, will study air pollution exposure in Brazil and estimate how it will change over time. “We can’t understand how climate change will impact health in the future until we understand how those exposures affect health in the present day,” said Bell.

This year’s Global Environmental Health Day, a virtual forum due to the pandemic, provided opportunities for attendees to explore areas of common interest, discuss new ideas and partner for future collaborations. To mark the occasion, the NIEHS updated its climate change and human health literature database, said the Institute’s new director, Dr. Rick Woychik. “The portal, which curates more than 10,000 unique publications, is our effort at NIEHS to help many of you get answers to questions you have about climate change and its effects on human health.”

The NIEHS enjoys a longstanding partnership with Fogarty, which includes the Global Environmental and Occupational Health (GEOHealth) program and joint efforts to combat indoor air pollution.

Woychik concluded his remarks with a simple wish: “I hope everyone signs off with an increased motivation to do all they can to address the challenges posed by climate and other global environmental dangers.”

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