A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Between Climate and Health


Experts showcase knowledge and research linking climate change and health implications.

Members of the Brown community and researchers from across Rhode Island gathered at The Warren Alpert Medical School on May 4 to better understand the challenges posed by climate change to public health issues as part of the Climate Change and Health Symposium.

The symposium offered lectures, panelists, and poster presentations, presented both in person and virtually, throughout the day. Alison Hayward, MD, MPH, assistant professor of emergency medicine and chair of the Rhode Island Medical Society Climate Change and Health Committee, helped organize the event and attracted speakers who included Brown representatives and figures like Amy Collins, MD, a practicing emergency medicine physician, health care sustainability professional, and senior clinical adviser for Health Care Without Harm.

In keeping with the theme of sustainability, the event’s lunch service offered completely vegetarian offerings with vegan and gluten-ree options as well, with compostable palm leaf plates, linen napkins, and reusable flatware. The event was co-sponsored by the Office of Sustainability and Resiliency and the Climate Solutions Initiative at Brown.

Speakers touched on a diverse range of topics throughout the symposium, like the impact of microplastics in the water supply, challenges related to heat stroke, and how to better communicate to the public the health effects of climate change. Joshua Wortzel F’24, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow based at Bradley Hospital, addressed the impact of climate change on mental health. It’s a subject Wortzel is well-versed in—he serves as chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on Climate Change and Mental Health and the vice-chair of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Resource Group on Climate Mental Health.

Wortzel focused on the relationship between temperature and the prevalence of mental health conditions, along with the psychological and existential impacts of climate change, and how psychiatric patients are prone to challenges with temperature regulation. Neurotransmitters that are duplicated in mental illness are involved with thermoregulation and may explain why researchers see a link between deregulation and patients with certain mental conditions. Many people are affected by environmental traumas and a sense of existential dread for the future, but Wortzel said there are steps that medical providers can take to address this, like certain coping strategies and seeking out close-knit communities for support.

“We know things that are especially community-oriented and not individually oriented seem to be more effective, like being part of a recycling program or a tree planting effort,” he said.

He also touched on the psychological challenges with young people who are confronting serious climate distress. Wortzel stressed offering opportunities to talk about climate change with children at an age-appropriate level, and providing support for their thoughts without minimizing their worries. However, parents should also be mindful of their own media diet.

“We’re constantly being inundated by the media about how the world is going to pot,” he said. “We need to make sure the goal is not to just suppress or eliminate our negative feelings about climate change but to acknowledge and validate them, and foster self-efficacy and engagement with climate action ourselves.”

Heather Smith, MD, MPH, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology, clinician educator, presented research on the impact of climate change on maternal and neonatal health. Smith touched on how pregnant women often experience heighted health risks and reduced access to maternal care services due to how extreme weather events disrupt health care. She also examined other indirect effects on neonatal health, like air pollution and heat waves.

“Not only is your risk increased with increased exposure to air pollution, but how much less the infant weighs is also related to the amount of exposure,” Smith said.

Smith referenced a study from emergency rooms that showed a 10-degree increase in the average day temperature was associated with a 24 percent increase in evening visits and a 4 percent increase in all-cause mortality. For pregnant women, she added, it can be difficult to adapt to temperature extremes, with higher risks of dehydration, inflammation, and oxidative stress that can impact fetal health. However, further research is needed.

“For every 10 degrees Fahrenheit that goes up, there’s an 8.5 percent higher risk of preterm delivery,” she said. “There’s still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know if there’s a critical exposure window, but we do know that these effects are exacerbated by and intertwined with the impacts of air pollution and plastics exposure.”

Read more about climate change and health at Brown.


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