Center member Carina Gronlund has been named a 2023 NIH Climate Health Scholar, joining this inaugural cohort of scientists working on projects that seek to reduce health threats from climate change across the lifespan and build health resilience in individuals, communities, and nations around the world, especially among those at highest risk.
We took the occasion to ask Gronlund about her climate work in general and where she thinks the NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative can have the most impact.
Where does your training and current research intersect with human health, including population health?
Since 2007, with Marie O'Neill's mentorship and later also with community and government collaborators, I have been studying climate change and health in some way, shape, or form.
We've merged large data sets of mortality, hospitalization, and emergency department visits with weather and other environmental data—including the built environment—to understand how risks of these emergency health events rise during extreme heat events. It became clear from our research and that of others that there's a measurable and significant public health burden from both hot and cold outdoor temperatures. However, this burden varies widely by climate and by individual-level characteristics, such as pre-existing health conditions and housing characteristics, and neighborhood characteristics, such as urban heat islands.
There is so much that needs to be accomplished to both dramatically limit CO2 emissions and reduce current and impending health disparities. There's also so much that we can do.
In 2016, we formed with other researchers and community partners the Climate Hazards, Housing, and Health (CHHH) Partnership. We have since received funding from the NSF and NIH to study issues related to weather and health and climate adaptation strategies.
What are some ways climate change is having negative impacts on human health where you see potential for current interventions to have immediate impact?
Lately, CHHH's work has focused on weatherization and energy efficiency upgrades—how to ensure that existing programs benefit low-to-moderate income households and what the resulting health benefits might be. The main job of a house or apartment is to provide shelter from the weather. Leaky, uninsulated homes with plumbing, foundation, or roof problems do not do a good job of this.
With rising temperatures and, in many parts of the world, increasing extreme precipitation events, the health impacts of inadequate housing could increase. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heat-related cardiovascular emergencies, preterm births triggered by hot temperatures, dehydration and kidney problems, and mold and pest-related diseases exacerbated by water infiltration and high indoor humidity are some of the health problems that may increase with climate change.
Sharing knowledge and resources is critical to fixing climate change.
In certain parts of the world, melting permafrost and rising sea levels are very immediate threats to life and livelihood. Food insecurity due to drought is an ever-present concern in many regions.
In countries that are rapidly electrifying, there is a corresponding need for electricity-only appliances and rising utility costs. Disparities in weather-related health effects could grow even wider, as homes without high-quality wiring or new, energy efficient appliances will be even further affected by rising utility prices. Utility costs can be a major drain on household budgets for low-income households. High utility costs force tough decisions each month about whether to pay for food, medicine, or utilities. Obviously, limiting nutrition and medical treatment can affect almost any dimension of health.
What are some longer-term interventions we ought to be thinking about?
We're very focused on weatherization and energy efficiency, and how to increase uptake of and funding for these important programs that both help individuals adapt to climate change, reduce health disparities, and reduce CO2 emissions due to increased energy efficiency.
Why did you get involved with the NIH Climate Health Scholar program?
I'm eager to share the knowledge gained by myself and my partners around climate change impacts and adaptation research needs with the NIH. I'm also looking forward to connecting with the other scholars to hear their thoughts on climate change research-to-action opportunities.
There is so much that needs to be accomplished to both dramatically limit CO2 emissions and reduce current and impending health disparities. There's also so much that we can do. This is a highly interdisciplinary problem with interdisciplinary solutions. Sharing knowledge and resources is critical to fixing climate change.
Where you do think this initiative will have the most impact?
Many health researchers care deeply about climate change but aren't sure what role they can play. I think the scholars' collective knowledge and the knowledge they've gained from their own partnerships can help NIH identify specific ways further climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.