Dec 7

Meet our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health: Brooke Anderson, PhD

With at least 3 major hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, and Maria) hitting the US this season, wildfires covering a good chunk of northern California, and high temperatures breaking records in many states this summer, climate change is front of mind. Extreme weather events are coming and they are getting more intense.

Brooke Anderson, PhD, uses large data sets to analyze the health effects of events like these and look at how they may change in the future. Her work focuses on finding ways to use publicly available, large data sets to think about the health-impacts of extreme climate-related events. To explore this, she and her team are “using models to best predict what might be the health impacts of climate change in the future under different scenarios,” Dr. Anderson says.

The health effects can vary greatly, but Dr. Anderson has identified some health impacts that might be particularly concerning with climate change.

“There can be climate change impacts on infectious disease and on agriculture and on damage from tropical storms and a variety of things like that… [When it comes to heat, we see] not just deaths from heat stroke, which might be what we classically think of as being a health risk for heat waves, but [we] also sometimes see a large increase from things like cardiovascular and respiratory deaths. In some recent really severe heat waves -- like one in 2010 in Russia and one in 2003 in Paris-- [we] actually can observe some days where the population mortality rate was twice what it normally is for all-cause mortality,” Dr. Anderson shares.

Other climate-related events, beyond heat waves, also can impact health outcomes. For example, wild fires can affect respiratory health, related to breathing in the smoke and particulate matter.

“There definitely seems to be an increased risk of respiratory morbidity associated with these [wildfire events]. This could include things like increased emergency department visits for asthma and increased hospitalization for respiratory causes,” Dr. Anderson says.

Not only has she looked at the impacts of these events, but also she looks into how common these events might in the future.

“Under climate change scenarios, it looks like we will probably have an increased risk of wildfires in the West, and that can include both that the frequency of them is higher, so we have more wildfires, and also that the wildfires that we have are more intense… There is [also] a large body of research where it is pretty clear to us that there could be very severe impacts of heat waves. Right now, we are pretty confident with the climate change scenarios that we can expect it to be hotter in the future,” Dr. Anderson shares.

Without sugar coating it, unless something changes, it looks like extreme weather events, and the health effects caused by them, are only going to get more common and more intense. This is most worrisome for senior population now.

“For heat and for wildfires [specifically], the elderly tend to be particularly susceptible. That might be because there are underlying health susceptibilities in that population and the added stress becomes too much for the body to handle at that point. That is one population consistently across studies that is identified as being at particularly high risk from a lot of these extreme environmental exposures,” Dr. Anderson warns.

While this is dangerous today, it should be a worry for everyone, including people currently as young as in their 20s.

“In the work that I have headed up where we have been looking at projecting the health impacts of climate change, the period that we are looking for is 2060-2080. Around 2070, the people who are in their 20-30s now are going to be in their 70s or 80s, so they are actually the people who will be most risk in some of these periods that we are looking at. I know it is hard to worry that far ahead of time… [but] people in their early 20s are exactly the people that are going to be most impacted, potentially, by some of these health-related impacts at least,” Dr. Anderson warns.

The hope is that all of the scientific understanding will be taken into consideration to create more stringent policies related to climate change. While this would be wonderful news for the environmental health world, it is not always feasible from a policy perspective. In addition most of the national or international policy level work takes a long time to go into effect. For more immediate needs, work is often done on the local community level.

“A lot of the times with those projections, we’re trying to quantify what the benefits might be of following a reduced scenario as opposed to a more extreme scenario over the coming century. That can help serve as a scientific basis and an input for some of these [international] climate agreements,” Dr. Anderson explains.

Not only is she working on projecting into the future to see how bad climate-health impacts might be, but she also is hoping her work will help to make changes to reduce risks from these extreme events in the present.

“For example, cities might come up with a response plan for what they would do if they do experience a very severe heat wave in the coming summer. That might include some plans for things like opening cooling centers and having hotlines for people to call into … There have [also] been a few communities that have done things like [not allowing] an electricity company to cut off electricity for non-payment during a very severe heat wave. [This] is something that I think a lot of communities already do in the winter when it is very cold, and, some communities are now recognizing that very hot conditions can be dangerous too,” Dr. Anderson says.

There are also measures that can be taken on an individual level. This includes checking in on neighbors and advocating for policies at the community and national levels like those mentioned above. Another option, for those who know how to use large data sets and have programming skills, is to volunteer their time and skills.

“There have been movements where volunteer programmers from around the country volunteer and work remotely and online to try to help with the response to particular severe and extreme events. As one example, this past year we had a really severe hurricane season, and the mainland of the United States was affected by both Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida. I think for both of those there were groups of volunteer programmers that got together… and did things like create websites that showed shelters and the status of each shelter and what different shelters needed at different periods in time. That kind of response is taking advantage of the rapid growth of technology … it is really interesting and really promising for the future,” Dr. Anderson shares.

These types of response are inspiring and use similar publicly available, large data sets that Dr. Anderson uses for her own work. She is working hard to raise awareness of these resources and their utility.

If this isn’t up your alley, there are some individual actions you can take in your own home that will have an impact when it comes to climate change. This article from the NRDC makes 12 suggestions for helping curb global warming.

Moving forward, it is important to understand the effects of climate change and how they can play out in the long term. Dr. Anderson is hoping her work will make a difference in spreading these messages.

We wanted to find the best young researchers and advocates who might change the future of environmental health. So, we asked a panel of luminaries in environmental health to nominate rising stars who are doing pioneering work. After a rigorous selection process, we invited 20 of these nominees to be our 20 Pioneers under 40 in Environmental Public Health.

This month, we held our third webinar in the series. In addition to these presentations, we got to sit down and learn a little bit more about the researchers. While we did talk about their research, we also learned how they first got interested in the field and what this work means to them, plus a few tips for staying healthy.

Tags: climate changecardiovascular diseasewebinars

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