Feature Stories


Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, March 2017


Climate Changes Health: UCSF Continues to Highlight the Link Between Health and Climate Change

In January after the inauguration of President Trump, any mention of climate change was purged from the official White House Website. Unfortunately, the health related impacts of climate change are not so easy to erase.

The Office of Sustainability has launched the second phase of its Climate Changes Health campaign.  “The Climate Changes Health campaign stresses the connections between climate change and public health and promotes easy climate solutions,” explained Gail Lee, UCSF Sustainability Director.

Climate change has been linked to a range of public health problems ranging from extreme weather injuries to heat-related illnesses and deaths to stress and mental health impacts. UCSF’s latest campaign emphases four key ways climate changes health:

• Premature births due to air pollution, which is increasing as temperatures increase;
• An increase in health risks to vulnerable populations, such as youth and the elderly, due to extreme heat events;
• Health risks from bacteria and pollutants in flood waters; and
• Health risks from toxic algae blooms in lakes and creeks.

Air Pollution Associated with an Increased Risk of Preterm Birth

Climate related temperature increases can lead to an increase in air pollution, which increases the risk of preterm deliveries. According to Environmental Health Perspectives, new research indicates that air pollution leads to 16,000 premature births in the United States each year, leading to billions of dollars in economic costs and health implications for the babies. Mother Jones reported in How Air Pollution Affects Babies Before They are Born , “Babies born prematurely, generally defined as at least three weeks before the due date, are at increased risk of infant mortality, cerebral palsy, developmental delays, lower IQ, and other health implications.”

Vulnerable Populations and Extreme Heat

With 2016 as the hottest year on record, vulnerable populations, such as youth and the elderly, are at greater risk of illness or death due to extreme heat. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences,  “As global temperatures rise and extreme heat events increase in frequency due to climate change we can expect to see more heat-related illnesses and mortality.” 

A report from The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI), Views of Allergy Specialists on the Health Effects of Climate Change, stresses that specific groups of people will be disproportionately affected by climate change, including young children ages 0-4 and adults over age 60. Prolonged exposure to extreme heat can cause heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke, and death, as well as exacerbate preexisting chronic conditions, such as various respiratory, cerebral, and cardiovascular diseases. 

Health Risks from Bacteria and Pollutants in Flood Waters

Here in the Bay Area, we recently experienced first hand the impacts of extreme storms, with schools and roads closing. At the state-level, we saw thousands evacuated as the Oroville dam was overwhelmed with storms. What you might not realize, is that flooding also creates serious health risks. Floodwaters increase risk to exposure to disease-causing bacteria and harmful pollutants.

Flooding can overwhelm drinking water infrastructure and wells, reducing water purification. Over half of all waterborne disease outbreaks in the United States occur in the aftermath of heavy rain; during flooding, untreated sewage, pesticides, and street contaminants (motor oil, dog excrement, etc.) can flow into local waterways.

Increased Toxic Algae Blooms in Lakes and Creeks

Last fall I was walking with a friend in the East Bay Regional Parks with her dog, when we came across warning signs about Cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae, in the creek. The algae, which produces potent toxins, can make dogs and people sick.

Higher water temperatures can result in toxic blue-green algae outbreaks, and algae-infested waters can give people gastrointestinal symptoms, neurological problems and other adverse health effects.  In some instances, dogs can die after exposure . Exposure occurs through ingestion, inhalation, or direct contact with contaminated water and through consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish.

UCSF Helping to Reduce Climate Impact

The UCSF community is doing its part by:

• Eating Less Beef: Taking personal responsibility for your food choices is an effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. UCSF’s latest sustainable food program Roots and Shoots encourages the UCSF community to eat less beef by offering smaller, healthier portions paired with vegetables and grains. Not only is eating less beef good for the planet, it is good for your health, reducing obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer (breast, prostate, colorectal), type II diabetes, and antibiotic resistance.

• Walking and Biking to Work: UCSF has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which includes Scope 3 emissions from staff, faculty and student commuting.  In 2016, 15.4% of UCSF commuters walked or biked to work. When you chose to walk or bike to work, you reduce air pollution as well as support a reduction in asthma, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and adverse birth outcomes. When you ride your bike to UCSF, you’ll find sturdy racks or well-lit cages to easily and securely lock up your bicycle.

• Buying Energy Efficient Equipment:  Department and individual actions, such as purchasing energy efficient equipment, helps UCSF meet its energy reduction goals. For example, UCSF’s ULT Freezer Rebate Program, offered a $5,000 incentive for retiring/replacing old energy “hog” freezers with energy efficient models by Thermo-Fisher, Stirling, and Eppendorf. In Fiscal Year 2015-16, 29 freezers were replaced, saving 160,000kWh/year and $20,000/year in energy savings.

Written by Green Impact:  Making Green Happen (Strategy + Communications + Engagement)