Climate Change is the biggest public health challenge of our lives, according to UAB Dean—here’s why

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Climate Change is the biggest public health challenge of our lives, according to UAB Dean—here’s why
UAB School of Public Health Dean Dr. Paul Erwin and Dr. Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of UAB’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

“Climate Change is the biggest public health challenge of our lives…even though we’re in the middle of a pandemic. This will be with us the rest of my natural life, whether I live one more day or 35 more years. It will pass on to my children, who will have to address this largely human-caused change in our environment.”

Dr. Paul Erwin, UAB, Dean of School of Public Health
UAB
Environmental headshot of Dr. Paul Erwin, DrPH (Dean, School of Public Health) standing outside of the Ryals Building, May 2021.

As a medical and public health professional for nearly four decades, Dr. Erwin doesn’t mince words. He is sounding the alarm about the impact of climate change on our health, Alabama’s economy and your family. But will we listen? UAB has.

Because of Dr. Erwin’s efforts, since he became Dean in 2018, UAB has begun what they call a “cluster hire”—the addition of five to six researchers/professors, including senior leadership. This new multidisciplinary unit of dedicated experts will focus on climate change and health within the School of Public Health. It’s a game-changer.

This is our first installment in a three-part series about climate change in Alabama. 

The topic today? Health. 

Climate Change and Your Wellbeing

UAB
Catherine Flowers interviewed by filmmaker Ellen Esling. Photo by Alabama Rivers Alliance

Catherine Flowers, an Alabamian, 2020 MacArthur Fellow and author of the highly acclaimed book “Waste: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret” is ecstatic about UAB’s work to connect climate change with people’s health.

“After just returning from COP 26 (the recent global climate change summit) in Glasgow, Scotland, I am happy to see the UAB School of Public Health recognize the threat that climate change is to our health, wellbeing and quite frankly our children’s future,” she said. “This positions UAB to be a leader not just in Alabama but in the South as we address the challenges of this existential crisis. I welcome the opportunity to work with them on saving our planet, our state and our children’s future.”

The New Group 

UAB
UAB students water testing. Photo via UAB

How will this new group at UAB work?

They are bringing onboard faculty who have a common interest in the impacts of climate change on human health while also having a faculty home in one of the five traditional departments in the school of public health. 

In a recent ZOOM interview with Dr. Erwin, and Dr. Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of UAB’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, both described how it will work.

“One of the five departments in the school is epidemiology,” said Erwin in his role as Dean. “One of our strengths is in cardiovascular epidemiology. So, when we are hiring new faculty, we look for someone whose research deals with the impacts of extreme heat on the cardiovascular system.”

Dr. Wickliffe, who was hired by Erwin, chimed in connecting the dots between a changing climate and health.

“Because of climate change, we’re going to see longer periods of time at high temperatures. As a result, anybody that works outdoors — from landscape folks to construction workers to road crews to farmers to foresters — they’re going to be experiencing more days of heat exposure, more days of dehydration.” 

According to Wickliffe, as a result, scientists are seeing dramatic increases in kidney disease and cardiovascular disease that are related to more intense exposure to higher heat, and other complications from dehydration. 

The job of the cardiovascular epidemiologist is to research and identify the problem and develop strategies that will keep outdoor workers (you can add people who recreate too) healthy and safe in the midst of a changing climate.

Additional Examples – Heat Islands, Mosquitoes, Ticks

Fort Payne Alabama
Little River Falls in October 2016 during the great Drought of 2016

Other areas where climate and public health connect?  

Helping poor and vulnerable populations mitigate the negative health impacts of urban heat islands brought on by climate change.

Or, how about mosquitoes and ticks, and their ever-expanding range caused by a world that is warming dramatically. 

“I have to mention the expanding range of vector borne diseases and illnesses,” Dr. Erwin added. “When mosquitoes and ticks are able to over-winter at higher and higher latitudes, it extends the period of transmission potential and extends the range of those vectors and the impact of those diseases. Lyme disease has really been expanding. It has expanded well up into Canada now.”

Lyme disease is not the only vector disease on the move— others include Dengue fever and Zika.

It’s a public health concern, both Erwin and Wickliffe agreed.

Extreme Weather

UAB Flooding
Flooding near the UAB campus on 8th street and 6th Avenue South on February 10,2020. Photo by Jon Eastwood for Bham Now

Let’s not forget the extreme weather we have been experiencing here in Alabama. Yes, you can’t pin it all on climate change, but over the last few years the Birmingham area has seen some once-in-a-lifetime weather events.

Catherine Flowers added this about tornadoes,

“Tornadoes have increased in intensity and frequency and destruction to the point that most of the state lies in the region called Dixie Alley. Consistently the state has ranked among having the highest number of deaths from tornadoes in the nation. We have to build resilience infrastructure and systems to protect the public health and prevent untimely death.”

Tackling Climate Change By Taking Care of Each Other

UAB
UAB School of Public Health Dean Dr. Paul Erwin and Dr. Jeff Wickliffe, Chair of UAB’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. Photo via Pat Byington for Bham Now

Ranked as one of the top Public Health Schools in the nation, UAB is ready to tackle the biggest challenge facing our community, state and the world. 

In Alabama there are doubters about climate change. Dr. Wickliffe has a response.

“Whether you think there’s a problem with the climate or not —air pollution is a problem with or without climate change,” he explained. “Air pollution affects people’s health — so we should try to get ourselves to move towards producing energy in a way that doesn’t generate as much air pollution or even water pollution. There’s a lot of things that would help in this whole climate change and health space, that we really should be working on, irrespective of the whole climate change and health argument.”

Dr. Erwin summed up why UAB is making climate and health a priority for the School of Public Health.

“I’m an optimistic kind of person. This problem didn’t happen overnight. But we have the wherewithal to get us out of this. There are useful and adaptable strategies that we can use to collectively make a difference and I still want to believe collectively, we actually care about each other.”

The Series

TNC
View from King’s Chair at Oak Mountain State Park. Photo courtesy of The Nature Conservancy

On the heels of COP26, one of the largest and most significant global climate change summits in history, we will examine the impacts of climate change in Alabama on people’s health, the local economy, life-saving research and our natural resources. Moreover, we will explore solutions, initiatives and ways people can individually do their part to mitigate and help solve the climate crisis.

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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