Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

April 04, 2002

U of G researchers to study health effects of climate change

University of Guelph researchers have received nearly $300,000 from the federal government to study the link between global climate change and waterborne illnesses, such as the heavy rainfall that led to drinking water contamination in Walkerton, Ont.

"Weather is often a factor in triggering waterborne disease outbreaks, especially extreme weather changes," said David Waltner-Toews, a professor of epidemiology in Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College. Recent waterborne disease outbreaks have alarmed Canadians and stepped up pressure for political action, he said.In Walkerton, seven people died and 2,300 became ill in May 2000 after excessive rainfall caused runoff to contaminate a well, resulting in an outbreak of E. coli 0157: H7. And in July 2001, elevated water temperatures resulted in bacterial overgrowth in drinking-water reservoirs in St. John's, Nfld. But deciding how to best prevent problems is difficult because "existing scientific information regarding weather-related health impacts in Canada is insufficient," Waltner-Toews said.

He and a team of researchers hope to change that through a three-year project that was recently funded by Health Canada's Health Policy Research Program. Waltner-Toews and Health Canada researchers Dominique Charron and Jeff Wilson (also an OVC professor) and scientists from Environment Canada will investigate the incidence of waterborne illness in Canada, examine the relationships between climate and enteric disease and project the potential health effects of global environmental change.

"We hope to provide evidence at a national level of the association between weather changes and waterborne illness, identifying those of greatest importance," Waltner-Toews said. For example, Charron said, future problems could include intense rainstorms, thunderstorms, high winds, tornadoes and snowstorms. Such extreme weather may flush manure, human sewage and wildlife and pet droppings into surface and drinking water. "We want to have a system in place to prevent problems," she said. "After a heavy rainfall, for example, we don't want to wait for the contamination to hit the wells."

The project team will begin by performing an exhaustive review of scientific literature linking climate changes to waterborne illnesses nationally and internationally. They will study the history of waterborne disease outbreaks in Canada, looking for links between weather and water quality. The research team also includes scientists who will integrate the best information on the causes of waterborne disease into models of climate change. They will identify vulnerable regions in Canada and how the expected environmental changes will affect human health, specifically waterborne disease outbreaks and hospitalizations. "We will focus on areas most likely be dealing with extreme weather changes," said Charron. "This would include areas or regions in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Newfoundland."

They plan to compile a final report for policy-makers that will detail the incidence of waterborne illness and relationship to weather changes, identify risk factors and suggest strategies for prevention and adaptation.

"This project is important because it addresses two important issues relevant to the health of Canadians: the risk of waterborne illness and the health effects of global climate change," Waltner-Toews said. "But it is also unique because it is addressing these complex issues in a collaborative way. We have people from the university and various government agencies looking at all of the different layers, so we can fully understand the problems and decide together what to do about them."

Prof. David Waltner-Toews
Department of Population Medicine
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 4745

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