Safeguarding our Environment for Health and Fighting Climate Change

By William N. Rom M.D.

It is critical to reach a larger stage on climate change with the message of how its consequences affect our health. Climate change will cause heat waves and interactions with air pollutants, which can increase cardio respiratory mortality. Hurricanes will become more frequent and intense, but storm surges that will cause the most damage. New York University and Bellevue Hospitals, where I work, are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy’s 13-foot storm surge. The salt water damaged hospital electrical infrastructure in the basements of both hospitals, and we were forced to relocate for 3 months. This resulted in patient evacuations and required salvage of many thousands of research samples.

Through my book Environmental Policy and Public Health: Air Pollution, Global Climate Change, and Wilderness (Jossey-Bass 2012) and my teaching at New York University for 25 years, I have reached dozens of policy students and medical residents/fellows on environment and global health. I have been involved in air pollution policy for the past decade, leading the American Thoracic Society’s Environmental Health Policy Committee, presenting data to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and meeting with the EPA Administrator to encourage lower standards to protect human health for ozone and PM 2.5.

As Director of NYU’s Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine and Bellevue Hospital’s Chest Service for 25 years, I have been able to witness environmental medicine first hand. When air pollution particulates and ozone increase, we admit more asthma patients and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations on our Chest Service and ICU.

Since the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, Bellevue has been inundated by thousands of breathless patients exposed to World Trade Center dust. We established the WTC Environmental Health Center at Bellevue where two large clinics have seen over 6,000 patients.

Since lung cancer is emerging as an environmental threat from tobacco in its many forms, I established the NYU Lung Cancer Biomarker Center in 2001 to pioneer research on the early detection of lung cancer. Several panels of blood proteins and autoantibodies are emerging for clinical use to determine if a nodule on a chest x-ray or CT-scan is malignant or benign.

My public health interests began from a leadership role in environmental and occupational health editing four editions of Environmental and Occupational Medicine with over 120 chapters. Following the Master’s in Public Health from Harvard School of Public Health in 1973, I was awarded their Alumni Award of Merit in 2011. I will continue to teach medical students and residents about climate change so they can spread the word to their patients.

About the author: William N. Rom M.D., MPH is a professor of Medicine and Environmental Medicine and the director of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at the New York University School of Medicine.