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Global warming has many degrees of danger

Public health professionals know that prevention is always easier than the cure. From tobacco-free households to contaminant-free drinking water, a healthy environment is essential to protecting human health. We now know that a stable climate is also essential.

Humans are destabilizing the climate by releasing heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide. The global warming associated with this blanket of carbon dioxide is deadly. And, like cancer, it must be stopped early before it becomes irreversible.

As temperatures rise, so do heat-related illnesses and death, drownings related to extreme weather events, respiratory illnesses aggravated by heat-induced smog, waterborne and food-borne diseases and diseases carried by insects and rodents. Increases in temperature also appear to help the spread of mercury, a toxic pollutant that is found at unsafe levels in one of 12 women of childbearing years. (Mercury's most dangerous impacts are during prenatal development.)

The World Health Organization released a report in December blaming global warming for 2.4 percent of diarrhea cases and 2 percent of all cases of malaria worldwide. WHO estimates that global warming currently is responsible for 150,000 deaths each year, and by 2030, this figure will double.

The developing world bears the brunt of these health impacts, but consider these examples from industrialized nations. An estimated 20,000 people died because of extremely hot temperatures in Europe last summer. In 1995, the Chicago heat wave was implicated in more than 700 deaths. An outbreak of cryptosporidium in Milwaukee in 1993, resulting from drinking water compromised by heavy spring rainfall and runoff, caused an estimated 403,000 cases of intestinal illness and 54 deaths.

Scientists at the University of Washington predict that water supply and water quality are Oregon's two greatest climate challenges. They say the Northwest will experience warmer, wetter winters (with less mountain snowpack) and warmer, drier summers. The change in the timing of runoff will result in more frequent spring floods and mudslides, as well as summer droughts.

According to the scientists, Oregon will see an increase in unhealthy air days, as hotter summertime temperatures generate more ozone (smog) 'red alerts.' A potentially longer pollen season could make life more uncomfortable for people with asthma and allergies. And cases of insect-borne diseases, such as encephalitis, may move northward into Oregon.

This needn't be our future. Let's dream a moment. Envision a healthy future where our cities shine like the Emerald City of Oz instead of being enveloped in clouds of smog; where our power is derived from clean, renewable sources instead of dirty fossil fuels; where our cars run on clean fuels instead of spewing noxious fumes; and where we have normal transitions from season to season instead of violent climate changes caused by global warming.

We know what ails us. And we have the ability right now to provide prevention, rather than searching for end-stage and usually more expensive cures. As leaders in promoting climate solutions, we call upon our businesses to apply good old American know-how and our political leaders to adopt common-sense policies that will protect the health of people today and the generations to come.

Dr. Jonathan Patz is the director of the Program on Health Effects of Global Climate Change at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland; Christine Hagerbaumer is a program director with the Oregon Environmental Council.