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Heidi Hanson: Climate change health impacts

Heidi Hanson Portrait

Heidi Hanson is using her expertise in biostatistics, demography, and biomedical informatics to analyze and predict the effects of climate change on human health at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

As a group leader in the Advanced Computing for Health Sciences Section at ORNL, Hanson uses data science and large, population-level datasets to investigate environmental health determinants, including climate-related impacts that can affect lifelong health and the health of future generations.

What climate-related problem are you working on?

I am investigating the relationship between climate change and human health. Climate change has increased the number of large, population-level events due to natural disasters such as heat waves, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, cultural shifts in health behaviors, transmission of zoonotic diseases, and human-caused environmental catastrophes. All of these can trigger health effects, some of them long-lasting, in our communities. We want to better understand and predict these health risks in a changing world.

Why does the research matter?

These events can reduce fertility, increase morbidity and mortality, and have long-lasting and severely detrimental effects. These adverse health effects may be a direct response to the climate change events themselves, or due to the damage they cause to infrastructure or land use.

For example, short-term fine particulate matter exposure from wildfires threatens the health of pregnant women, cancer survivors, and individuals with cardiovascular disease. Nitrogen dioxide exposure has been associated with increased risk for miscarriage, and extreme heat events have been associated with increased risk for low birth weight.

We are using electronic health records and vital statistics databases to further explore these associations with the intent to identify populations with increased vulnerability to climate change events. We hope the research findings and computational methods generated by our projects will improve national health security by identifying high-priority climate change-related health risks.

What keeps you motivated?

I am motivated by research questions that focus on health from a population level and incorporate environmental and social determinates of health. I want to identify factors that are amenable to intervention, especially within vulnerable populations, with the intent to increase health equity. I believe that if we identify vulnerable populations early on, we will be able to mitigate adverse outcomes related to climate change. 

What about the research keeps you up at night?

I think about the vast number of unanswered questions that would be relatively easy to assess if we had some way of analyzing health data at a population level. Unfortunately, health data remains siloed for multiple reasons, and those that may be most vulnerable to the adverse health effects related to climate change are often the individuals with the least amount of data available. We need a systematic way to study health at the population level and ensure that all populations are represented in our research.

What would you tell a student interested in pursuing a career in climate science or a related field?

I would tell students that this area of research is both exciting and critically important. We need folks from all scientific backgrounds to contribute to the discussion, innovation, and intervention. There are many questions to be answered, and an enthusiastic research community trying to answer them. I would recommend that they take courses that increase their knowledge of geospatial and health data analytics.