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Wildfires and Climate Change: It's Enough to Make You Sick

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- This week started off ominously with two independent teams of scientists saying that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is collapsing as a result of man-made global warming. The melt could put coastal cities under water in the not-too-distant future.

Turned out that was only the start of the week's bad news for the globe. Since then, California wildfires have begun raging again, this time near San Diego. The early start to the season of vicious, destructive infernos is evidence that climate change is already directly affecting individuals in ways predicted by the recently released National Climate Assessment report, or NCAR. Nine fires have been reported to be burning in the San Diego area, one person has been killed and a firefighter injured. More than 20,000 evacuation notices were delivered in Carlsbad alone. A nuclear plant and a university are among those sites abandoned. Local news channels have included warnings about the dangers of exposure to smoke.

In perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the NCAR, released May 6 by the federal government, researchers listed health risks caused by warming temperatures and resulting changes in the environment. These effects constitute an area of immediate and often ignored hazards from global warming, including those from more intense and more frequent wildfires. State governments and the insurance industry are already reacting, shifting in the direction of climate change prediction and adaptation.

The NCAR is the work of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, established by President H.W. Bush in 1989 and mandated by Congress with the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It involves 300 experts, including researchers from 13 federal departments. The program is overseen by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee and the findings are reviewed by the public and experts, including a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Among the hazards that affect the health of the U.S. populace, the report includes rising ground-level ozone, pollution and threat to life from increased wildfires, increased allergens, more days of extreme heat, more extreme rainfall and flooding, swelling populations of mosquitos and other disease-carrying insects, a climb in the frequency and severity of drought conditions and heightened stress levels among animals and people.

Most of those causes carry the potential for multiple ill effects. An increase in wildfires for instance could affect not only property but also those with respiratory problems or those with any number of stress-related conditions. Drought and fire can also cause damage to the quality of drinking water. As natural environments become compromised, wildlife can relocate to populated areas, threatening locals with the spread of disease and unexpected physical encounters with hungry, agitated wild animals.

The Present Evidence

California is a test case for many of the problems outlined in the NCAR. According to the California Department of Health (CDPH), the State of California as a matter of policy sees many of the personal health risks outlined in NCAR as related to climate change. Officials there confirmed that they were already seeing dramatic changes in weather patterns that could affect the health of citizens.

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