Crossing Divisions to Solve Global Climate Change

MICHELE BARRY, MD (right), discusses effects of climate change with KARI NADEAU, MD, PHD (left)

“Global climate change has direct effects on our health, and in my field one direct effect is allergy,” says Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, professor of medicine and pediatrics (and, by courtesy, otolaryngology).

“Increased carbon dioxide changes the pH level in the air, which causes longer seasons of pollen emissions and adversely affects those with asthma and allergies,” says Nadeau, the section chief of asthma and allergy in the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine and director of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research.

Nadeau joined forces with Michele Barry, MD, professor of medicine and senior associate dean for global health, to talk about children’s health at a September 2018 Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

The goal of the four-day event was to help state and local governments, businesses, universities, and individuals find solutions to problems caused by climate change. The summit was a call to create a practical plan and encourage citizens to think about how to mitigate climate change to improve our health.

Barry and Nadeau exemplify team science. They worked on the summit jointly as well as with others in the School of Medicine, across Stanford, at other universities, and in the Office of the Governor of California. The two Stanford professors collaborated with former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, who now co-directs C-CHANGE (Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment) at Harvard, on a “Kids and Climate” panel symposium during the summit.

“Children bear the brunt of this,” says Barry, who directs the Center for Innovation in Global Health (CIGH). “Eighty-eight percent of the global burden of disease attributable to climate change falls on children under 5. And we can’t think about just us or just our kids — we live in a globalized world.”

She cited a 2015 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that linked global warming and the health of children. “While climate change poses a threat to all human health and safety, children are uniquely vulnerable,” the statement said.

“Because children breathe more air and drink more fluid per body weight, they are exposed to more toxic air pollutants while their immune systems are still developing — and as anyone who’s spent time with a toddler knows, they put all kinds of things in their mouths — and thus are extremely vulnerable to ground pollutants,” Barry adds.

“We can all be instruments of change,” Nadeau says, explaining how a community she works with in Fresno recognized that the school buses their children rode each day were contributing to a high incidence of asthma. Together, community members and the school district worked together to switch technologies in the buses to reduce diesel emissions. The result? A dramatic decrease in the incidence of asthma in their kids.

The Global Climate Action Summit is just one example of how Barry and Nadeau collaborate.

They teach alongside one another in Barry’s Planetary Health and Women’s Global Leadership class. Under Nadeau’s direction, the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research has awarded seed grants to several members of the CIGH. One grant was awarded in 2018 to CIGH member Gary Darmstadt, MD, for research involving treatment of gut and skin problems in children in Bangladesh.