WASHINGTON – A top government health official said Wednesday that climate change is expected to have a significant impact on health in the next few decades, with certain regions of the country - and the elderly and children - most vulnerable to increased health problems.
Howard Frumkin, a senior official of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, gave a detailed summary on the likely health impacts of global warming at a congressional hearing. But he refrained from giving an opinion on whether carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas, should be regulated as a danger to public health.
"The CDC doesn't have a position on ... EPA's regulatory decisions," said Frumkin, determined to avoid getting embroiled in the contentious issue over whether the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate CO2 under the federal Clean Air Act.
The Supreme Court a year ago declared CO2 a pollutant under the federal air quality law and told the EPA it must determine whether CO2's link to climate change endangers public health or welfare. If it does, it must be regulated, said the court. But the EPA has been slow to respond to the court directive, saying it must review such a regulation's broad impact on emissions from everything from cars and power plants to schools.
"To the science, there is strong evidence the carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas ... and that there is strong evidence that climate change affects public health in many ways," responded Frumkin, carefully gauging his words, when pressed by Rep. Hilda Solis, D-Calif., on the issue.
Frumkin, director of CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, outlined the range of "major anticipated health" issues as a result of climate change.
Among them, the prospects of more heat waves that are of special danger to the elderly and the poor; more incidents of extreme weather posing a danger of drought in some areas and flooding in others; increase of food-borne and waterborne infectious diseases; more air pollution because of higher temperatures; and the migration into new areas of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases such as Lyme disease, West Nile virus, malaria or dengue fever as seasonal patterns change.
"Over the next few decades in the United States, climate change is likely to have a significant impact on health," Frumkin told the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
The Atlanta-based CDC is considered the government's premier disease tracking and monitoring agency.
Frumkin's testimony focused in greater detail and more directly on the likely human health risk of global warming than testimony given last October by the agency's director, Julie Gerberding, before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
It was later learned that the White House had heavily edited Gerberding's testimony, deleting whole sections of the prepared remarks including one entitled "Climate Change is a Public Concern."
"CDC considers climate change a serious public health concern," Frumkin told the House committee Wednesday.
Frumkin said he recognized the issue of global warming and public health "remains controversial, and some of my testimony may not necessarily reflect broad consensus across the administration."
But Solis, who chaired the hearing, said she suspected that "a layer of screening" continues to limit what CDC officials are allowed to say, particularly regarding the agency's ability to deal with the health risks.
Solis said she was perturbed that the administration did not give the committee Frumkin's testimony in advance, as is customary, and that he did not have more to say "on how we could empower the CDC. I don't think we heard that."
Jonathan Patz, professor of environmental and health sciences at the University of Wisconsin, told the committee the CDC doesn't have the money "to support the efforts to protect us from climate change."
"I think their hands are tied," said Patz.
The president has asked Congress for $8.8 billion for the CDC during the 2009 fiscal year, $412 million less than Congress provided this year.
Pressed on the budget issue by several lawmakers, Frumkin replied: "We're doing everything we can with existing resources now. ... With further resources we would be able to do more."