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UI professor speaks on global warming

BY SHIANNE GRUSS | AUGUST 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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As an exceptionally warm first week to the fall semester wraps up at the University of Iowa, the College of Public Health has concerned itself with how all this hot weather, and more specifically climate change, is affecting global respiratory health.

The college held its annual Distinguished Faculty Lecture on Thursday, titled “Protecting Respiratory Health in a Changing Climate: David, meet Goliath.”

Peter Thorne, a UI professor of occupational and environmental health, was awarded the honor to speak at this year’s event.

“Global climate change is upon us,” he said. “We have to think about both how to mitigate and adapt to survive.”

Thorne highlighted the current phenomena of longer allergy seasons and increased respiratory mortality, stating it was due to a seemingly unending pattern of record high temperatures.

He said with a rise in temperature, allergenic plants grow more fiercely, potentially causing more cases of allergy-related asthma.

“The plants grow bigger, produce more pollens, and the pollens they produce contain more allergens,” Thorne said.

Joel Kline, a UI professor of pulmonary, critical care, and occupational medicine, said although about 5 to 10 percent of Iowans have asthma, the university sees just 1 percent of them.

“The problem is that it’s difficult to correlate trends that are appearing on a larger scale with a single practice,” he said.

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, five out of 99 counties in the state are on a priority list because of a high number of reported asthma cases: Emmett, Guthrie, Polk, Marion, and Van Buren.

Poor respiratory health can also be attributed to wet environments and flooding, which aid in the formation of mold, which can worsen asthma symptoms.

Aside from an increase in temperature, Thorne stressed the danger of extreme weather events, such as intense flooding in Iowa.

“We know that a warmer world is a more humid world, because the amount of water that the atmosphere can hold increases with temperature,” Thorne said.

The Midwest overall saw a 31 percent increase in precipitation between 1958 and 2007, according to an Illinois State Water Survey done by the University of Illinois Prairie Research Institute.

Although climate change is a global problem, the UI is doing its best to decrease carbon emissions on a more local scale, which in the long run, may help reverse the notable increase in respiratory health problems such as asthma.

The university recently planted a field of miscanthus, a semi-new biofuel, to meet energy needs and expand upon its Biomass Project.

“Miscanthus grass, or any annual crop or perennial crop, has a much quicker cycle taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” said Ferman Milster, the principal engineer for renewables in the UI Office of Sustainability.

“The carbon gets locked in the plant and sugars, and then when we burn it, we put the carbon dioxide back in the atmosphere,” he said. “So it really doesn’t reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide, it just recycles it.

Any efforts, individual or large-scale, are important in reducing our ecological footprint, Thorne said.

“We need to be brave,” he said. “We need to strive for sustainability joyfully. We need to approach this with the realization that a sustainable world will be a much better world than the one we live in today.”


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