Physician urges derms to become environmental activists

February 20, 2005

Dermatologists should become environmental activists in their communities and on a broader scale, urges Peyton E. Weary, M.D.

Dermatologists should become environmental activists in their communities and on a broader scale, urges Peyton E. Weary, M.D.

Dr. Weary, emeritus professor of dermatology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, painted a stark picture of the consequences of environmental damage in his presentation yesterday on, "The Impact of Global Climate Change, Biodiversity and Population on Human Health."

Global warming, the destruction of the rain forests and the sharp rise in the planet's population, pose significant long-term health threats, he says.

The peak of stratospheric ozone layer depletion will occur in several decades, Dr. Weary says, allowing increased ultraviolet light to reach the Earth's surface. That will result in increased rates of skin cancers, cortical cataracts and immune system problems.

Dr. Weary says amounts of so-called atmospheric "greenhouse gases" have increased by 50 percent since the industrial revolution began, and they continue to grow. Among the predicted effects: more extreme weather events, including heat waves that contribute to illness and deaths, and a potential increase in vector-borne diseases such as malaria and hanta virus.

Rain forest depletion impacts the human population because 50 percent of the planet's 1.5 million species of plants and animals live in that ecosystem, Dr. Weary says. Biodiversity benefits humans, he says, because wild plants and animals are the source of many important medical compounds. Researchers also can gather valuable knowledge by studying, for instance, why hibernating bears don't lose bone mass during their months of inactivity.

Unrestricted population growth can contribute to such health problems as the spread of infections, including tuberculosis, SARS, typhus and cholera, along with increased incidence of starvation, malnutrition and depletion of resources, he says.

Steps that would slow environmental damage, Dr. Weary says, include the restoring of U.S. funding for global family planning, and the promotion of energy conservation research as well as research into alternative and sustainable energy sources.

Dr. Weary urges physicians to become environmental activists, to support and encourage habitat protection, and to focus attention on "the health impacts of our changing environment."