How Climate Change Is Hurting Our Health

Julie Sweet

Amid continued warnings about melting arctic ice and dangerous greenhouse gas emissions, a new conversation is emerging—how climate change is hurting our health. The impact is already evident to 7 out of 10 physicians, according to a study published in the February Annals of the American Thoracic Society. The majority polled said they see the effects of climate change reflected in patients in several ways: more severe chronic disease as a result of air pollution, more allergies from exposure to plants and mold, and more injuries caused by severe weather.

“Around the world, variations in climate are affecting, in profoundly diverse ways, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink,” wrote Dr. Maria Neira, director of the World Health Organization’s public health and environment department, in a recent commentary. “We are losing our capacity to sustain human life in good health.”

Although the world’s poor and sick are most vulnerable, every person on the planet is subject to the health effects of climate change. Here’s a look at how our hurting environment is gearing up to impact human health in the United States.

Asthma and Allergies:

More than 126 million U.S. residents live in counties that fail to meet national standards for air quality, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. Increases in ground-level ozone, fine particles, dust, and plant and mold allergens associated with climate change will make it even harder for people—especially those with asthma or other respiratory diseases—to breathe easily, scientists predict.

Many allergy sufferers have already noticed earlier and longer spring pollen seasons, believed to be a result of our warming planet. Higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and rising temperatures are expected to continue to spread the invasive ragweed plant—and its allergenic pollen—even more. “The pollen itself is even supercharged. It’s more sticky and potent,” said Cliff Bassett, MD, a fellow of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. “It’s sticking to eyeballs more, which is why you have so much itchiness in your eyes.”

Cardiovascular Disease and Stroke:

As communities are facing more weather extremes associated with climate change, incidences of cardiovascular disease and stroke—already the first and third respectively leading causes of death in the United States—are expected to rise. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, hospital admissions for dysrhythmias, stroke and other types of cardiovascular disease surge when temperatures reach record highs. Heat is hard on the heart, raising the pulse rate, lowering blood pressure, and even hardening arteries. Consider how rust develops on a car, suggested Gordon Tomaselli, MD, chief of cardiology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in an Associated Press report. “Rust develops much more quickly at warm temperatures,” he said, “and so does atherosclerosis.”

In addition, ozone and fine particles in the air, plus the stress and anxiety brought on by extreme weather, are also known to compromise heart health. Older adults and people who live in isolation are particularly vulnerable.

Infectious Diseases:

More than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported in 2012, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finding reported in a 2014 White House report. Other vector-borne diseases that threaten many U.S. communities include dengue fever, West Nile virus and Rocky Mountain Fever. Climate change will increase the distribution of pests and the diseases they carry. Already, New Hampshire, Delaware, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts are reporting up to 90 additional Lyme infections per 100,000 residents than they did in 1991.

Mental Health:

Prolonged heat and cold, in addition to extreme weather events like flooding, hurricanes and wildfires associated with climate change can damage psychological health. Absent appropriate support and coping, a host of mental health disorders are apt to arise: stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, sleep difficulties, interpersonal conflict, grief and suicidal ideation. The loss of homes or, even worse, loved ones, raises the risk of mental health problems in displaced residents. “Hurricane Katrina is but a microcosm of what may happen across the nation and world in the coming years as climate change unfolds,” warns the nonprofit organization Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

Weather-Related Illness and Death:

The increase in blizzards, hurricanes, floods, heat waves and droughts, as well as the increase in their severity, puts people at immediate risk of injury and death. They also reduce access to food, water and healthcare services. Gastrointestinal illness, carbon monoxide poisoning and, as previously stated, mental health problems are all possible dangers in the wake of extreme weather events.

Public Health Reaction:

In lieu of current and expected health consequences of climate change, public health professionals are working hard to prepare and protect U.S. citizens. Disaster preparedness and response plans have been developed in communities across the nation for extreme weather events. Public health professionals are also tracking data that could indicate important trends in environmental conditions and disease risk, and they are educating affected residents and their healthcare providers in strategies for prevention and treatment.

Finally, by leading this timely conversation and providing credible information, public health experts are spreading awareness of the very real impacts global warming has on personal health. With awareness comes action, in the forms of policies and procedures that will better protect the environment and, hopefully, will reduce the risks that affect us all.

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