It is difficult to open a newspaper or watch a news report without hearing the words ‘climate change’. But while the iconic images might be of the polar ice caps melting, climate change also has a devastating human impact that threatens to get much worse if we don’t take action to reduce our carbon footprint. If you’re not already worried about our environment, the harmful health effects of carbon emissions might just change your mind. Here are five of the most serious public health risks posed by climate change:
Asthma and Other Respiratory Diseases
Climate change plays a few roles contributing to asthma and respiratory illness: It lengthens allergy season and raises pollen counts. An increase in harmful ozone and carbon pollution contributes to poor air quality and pollen counts, while extreme rainfall and dampness encourages the growth of indoor fungi and molds. The result? Terrible allergy seasons and more cases of asthma: The rate of people diagnosed with asthma has gone up from 7.3 percent of the population to 8.4 percent over the last decade. Between 1995 and 2011, hotter temperatures caused the ragweed pollen season to increase by anywhere from 11 to 27 days in parts of the U.S.
A few of the ways that climate change impacts air quality, and subsequently your health, include:
- Increased ground level ozone and fine particle concentrations, which can trigger a variety of reactions including chest pains, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion, as well as reduce lung function and cause inflammation of the lungs
- Increased carbon dioxide concentrations and temperatures, affecting the timing of aeroallergen distribution and amplifying the allergenicity of pollen and mold spores
- Increase in rate of ozone formation due to higher temperatures and increased sunlight
- Increased frequency of droughts, leading to increased dust and particulate matter
Warming temperatures also worsen smog pollution, which triggers asthma attacks and permanently damages and reduces the function of children’s lungs. Higher smog levels even contribute to premature deaths.
It’s been known for a while that warming temperatures and changing patterns of rainfall could facilitate the spread of certain diseases. Insect-borne diseases, parasitic infections, and water-borne pathogens are just three of the infectious disease risks that are increased with climate change.
As temperatures increase and rainfall patterns change – and summers become longer – insects that carry infectious agents can remain active for longer seasons and in wider areas, greatly increasing the risk for people who live there. Malaria, which kills about 650,000 people a year, thrives in the hot and humid areas where the Anopheles mosquito can live. Scientists have already found evidence that malaria migrates to higher elevations during warmer years and back down to lower elevations when the temperatures are cooler, which means that climate change will expand the geographical boundaries of the disease. Most at risk are those regions bordering areas where malaria is already prevalent; central Asia and countries throughout Africa are at the greatest risk of experiencing malaria epidemics in previously unaffected areas.
Increasing temperatures and rainfall have already been associated with increased occurrence and transmission of other insect-borne diseases like West Nile virus and dengue fever. West Nile virus, which first entered the U.S. in 1999, expanded rapidly westward across the country. By 2005, over 16,000 cases had been reported. Nearly 4,000 cases of imported and locally-transmitted Dengue Fever were reported in the U.S. between 1995 and 2005, and that number rises to 10,000 when cases in the Texas-Mexico border region are included. Approximately 173 million Americans in at least 28 states live in counties with mosquitoes that can carry dengue fever, a painful viral illness that has increased globally 30-fold in the last 50 years. In Florida, 28 locally-transmitted cases were reported in a 2009-2010 outbreak, the first there in more than 40 years. Dengue Fever, also known as “Breakbone Fever”, is characterized by high fever, headaches, bone and joint aches, and a rash. Recurrent infection can lead to bleeding, seizures, and death.
There is also evidence that increasing rates of Lyme disease, tick-borne encephalitis, and other tick-borne infections like Rocky Mountain spotted fever are being driven by climate change. While we can’t say conclusively that climate change is causing these increases, most scientists agree that warmer temperatures and longer summers are expanding the geographic range and mating seasons of ticks, resulting in larger tick populations and the emergence of ticks in new areas. In Sweden, the northern limit of distribution of the tick vector and tick density increased between the early 1980s and 1994, concurrent with an increased frequency of milder winters. In New York state, certain species of ticks have expanded their geographic distribution northward and westward in the past 10 years, bringing with them an increased risk of tick-borne disease.
According to The National Climate Assessment, “confidence is high based on scientific literature that climate change has contributed to the expanded range of certain disease vectors, including ticks which are vectors for Lyme disease in the United States.”
Climate change can alter the physiology of parasites, increasing their pace of development. In the Arctic, which is warming faster than any other region on the planet, higher temperatures are allowing parasites like the lungworm, which afflicts musk oxen, to develop faster and be transmitted over longer periods. Furthermore, under the stress of unexpected and harsh changes in temperature, the added stress that the body is put under diminishes the ability of the immune system to fight off disease, making it much easier for parasites to enter the bloodstream. These opportunistic organisms seem to be less affected by changes in the macro environment than are their hosts, possibly due to their smaller size and more rapid reproductive rate.
Climate directly impacts the incidence of waterborne disease through effects on water temperature and precipitation frequency and intensity. Domestic water treatment plants may be susceptible to climate change leading to human health risks. For example, droughts may cause problems with increased concentrations of effluent pathogens and overwhelm water treatment plants; aging water treatment plants are particularly at risk.
Climate change also indirectly impacts waterborne disease through changes in ocean and coastal ecosystems including changes in pH, nutrient and contaminant runoff, salinity, and water security.
Floods are also increasing in frequency and intensity. Even in countries that treat water, floods contaminate freshwater supplies and heighten the risk of water-borne infectious diseases. These infections most often cause diarrheal illness and flourish in the wake of heavy rainfalls as runoff from land enters into water supplies. Many pathogens that cause diarrheal disease reproduce more quickly in warmer conditions as well. Severe outbreaks of cholera, in particular, have been directly associated with flooding in Africa and India.
According to The National Climate Assessment, the Great Lakes region is expected to face more risk of exposure to the threat of water-borne diseases due to climate change. That was the situation that played out during the heavy flooding that hit Colorado last fall, where the water was discovered to contain elevated levels of e. coli.
Climate change may also affect the distribution and concentrations of chemical contaminants in coastal and ocean waters, for example through release of chemical contaminants previously bound up in polar ice sheets or sediments, through changes in volume and composition of runoff from coastal and watershed development, or through changes in coastal and ocean goods and services. Both naturally occurring and pollution-related ocean health threats are exacerbated by climate change. Other climate-related environmental changes may impact marine food webs as well, such as pesticide runoff, leaching of arsenic, fluoride, and nitrates from fertilizers, and lead contamination of drinking and recreational waters through excess rainfall and flooding.
Stroke from heat waves
Imagine the hottest days that the country experienced over the last two decades. Now imagine them 10 to 15 degrees hotter. Climate change means the deadly summer heat waves will only grow worse. For instance, 2013 was tied for the fourth-hottest year for the United States while 2012 was the hottest ever recorded across the country. Record heat causes problems for the heart, lungs, and kidneys, especially in the elderly and sick, and while solutions like air conditioning can reduce some of these risks it still leaves the poor vulnerable. People who don’t believe in climate change—or think it’s no big deal—sometimes argue that warming temperatures will actually mean fewer deaths, since winter-related mortality will decline. The National Climate Assessment report puts that claim to rest: “these reductions are not expected to compensate for the increase in heat-related deaths.”
Climate change affects cancer risk through numerous pathways, including:
- Increased exposure to toxic chemicals, known or suspected to cause cancer, that are released into the environment following heavy rainfall or flooding and by increased volatilization of chemicals under conditions of increased temperature.
- Depletion of stratospheric ozone leads to an increase in UV exposure and temperature, increasing the risk of skin cancer and cataracts.
- A decline in air quality and rise in concentrations of certain air pollutants increases the risk of lung cancer.
Air pollution and smog directly impair the lungs, and some studies liken breathing ground-level ozone and tiny particulate matter to inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke. Last year, the World Health Organization declared air pollution to be a carcinogen, saying its link to lung cancer is clear and that it’s also associated with an increased risk for bladder cancer.
Maternal and Child Health
Pregnant women, the developing fetus, and young children are considered the most sensitive members of our species and are, in addition, already marginalized in many countries. They will therefore be most vulnerable to the environmental effects of climate change. In fact, climate change is already considered one of the biggest threats to achieving the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal of reducing the maternal mortality ratio by 75% and achieving universal access to reproductive health care. All of the health risks discussed above have both direct and indirect effects on maternal and child health, many of which are already evident.
Good maternal health is crucial for a healthy birth outcome and a healthy gestational period. Therefore, if the health of the expecting mother is threatened, the health of the developing fetus is directly compromised. Exposure to the effects of climate change at the early stage of development can cause immediate harm or damage that becomes evident later in life, resulting in lasting effects over a lifetime and even over generations.
Food and Water Shortages
Natural disasters or extreme weather events, such as droughts, have a large impact on human health by a number of primary and secondary factors; all of these are magnified for pregnant women and children. Crop failure, livestock mortality, and increased cereal prices will cause food shortage and malnutrition. In many regions all over the world, food is already scarce, and climate change further reduces the availability in populations that are already pressured. The situation in poor countries with on-going armed conflicts is already alarming, and the changes in food supply and food security add new problems to an already complicated situation. It has been estimated that the total population of food-insecure countries may increase to 6.8 billion or approximately 80% of the world population. The probability of the food being contaminated or of poor quality will also increase in areas already facing difficulties.
Natural disasters or extreme events will reduce the access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation, thereby increasing the risk of malnutrition, diarrhea, and cholera. The World Health Organization (WHO) has characterized these three health outcomes as being among the most climate-sensitive ones. The effects of these diseases are further confounded by undernutrition. Undernutrition, including stunting, poor fetal growth, and micronutrient deficiencies, is the underlying cause of at least 3.5 million deaths each year.
A well-nourished woman is essential for a healthy gestation period. During pregnancy, the energy demand of women increases by approximately 20%, which also continues throughout the period of breastfeeding. Underweight women are more likely to give birth to children suffering from intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)/low birth weight, which is considered a risk factor for infant morbidity and infant mortality. Undernutrition is the leading cause for child morbidity and child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, and it remains among the leading causes of morbidity in low-income countries around the world.
In addition, lack of safe drinking water and food will lead to migration of people, which in turn can create tense situations between ethnic groups. Several hundreds of millions of climate refugees are expected by 2050 due to droughts, natural disasters, sea level rise, lack of food and water, and so on. Care for the pregnant mother will be considerably reduced or impossible to obtain in such situations. Increased migration will further increase the risk of the emergence of epidemics in new areas since the spreading and control of many tropical diseases has been linked to population movements. The health status among migrants is therefore often poorer than the health status among people in the host country; women and children that are already marginalized are likely to be affected the most.
Another risk related to the lack of fresh drinking water has already been documented among women in Bangladesh and other coastal areas of Asia. Rising sea waters have resulted in increased salinity of drinking water (due to flooding and saline-rich groundwater), and many pregnant women in these areas are already exceeding the WHO’s recommendations for daily sodium intake from drinking water alone. Over-consumption of sodium during pregnancy increases the risk of hypertension and pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, which can be fatal without immediate treatment. Fetal complications of preeclampsia include risk of preterm delivery, oligohydramnios, and slow growth, while maternal complications of preeclampsia and eclampsia include liver and kidney failure, bleeding and clotting disorders, and death. Public health officials in Bangladesh say the rate of hypertension among pregnant women is on the rise in a coastal areas, a trend they link to climate change.
The increased risk of infectious diseases associated with climate change also threatens maternal and infant health. Approximately 125 million pregnant women are at risk of malaria infection each year. Malaria is known to cause 75,000–200,000 infant deaths yearly in sub-Saharan Africa, and a large proportion of maternal deaths (24–37%) during pregnancy are attributable to Malaria in several African countries. In endemic areas, Malaria can cause placental malaria and severe malaria anemia. Maternal malaria infection can also lead to IUGR and prematurity among newborns, which in turn are associated with infant death.
There are also a number of adverse health effects and pregnancy outcomes that are linked to maternal dengue infection during pregnancy. These include vertical transmission to the fetus, preterm birth, low birth weight, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, Caesarean delivery, and fetal/perinatal death and maternal death.
Heat-related illnesses are another risk factor for maternal and infant morbidity and mortality. Pregnant women are at particular risk of ‘over-heating’ (too high core body temperature) because of the hormonal situation at all stages of pregnancy . This increases the health risk for both mother and fetus. The newborn is especially sensitive to too high or too low temperature in the environment because of its limited temperature regulation capacity. Additionally, extremes of temperature have been identified as a risk factor for pregnancy complications and poor birth outcomes. In one study, researchers Oliver Deschenes, Michael Greenstone, and Jonathan Guryan found that increased exposure to extreme ambient temperatures was associated with an increased risk of low birthweight deliveries. Based on their analysis, which used predictions of daily temperatures to estimate future climate change, the researchers concluded that the average birthweight will decrease by an estimated 7.5 grams among whites and 11.5 grams among blacks by the end of the century.
On Monday, June 2 (tomorrow) the Obama administration will release new rules regulating carbon pollution from existing U.S. power plants that run on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, a linchpin of his plans to tackle climate change. The proposed rule on carbon dioxide emissions slated to be released by the Environmental Protection Agency will aim to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2030, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The paper reported Sunday that according to “two people who have been briefed on the rule,” the regulations will seek a 25 percent cut in CO2 emissions by 2020 and a 30 percent cut by 2030 from 2005 emissions levels. The proposed rule is scheduled to be completed one year from now and will go into effect in 2016. The EPA did not confirm the specifics of the rule to the Wall Street Journal, saying they would not comment on the rules until they are announced on Monday. In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Obama lauded the health benefits of the new rule, which he said will lead to major cuts in asthma and heart attacks in its first year.
“Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from power plants. But right now, there are no national limits to the amount of carbon pollution that existing plants can pump into the air we breathe. None,” Obama said. “We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury, sulfur, and arsenic that power plants put in our air and water. But they can dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air. It’s not smart, it’s not safe and it doesn’t make sense.”
The effects of climate change are real, and they’re already here. We see this not just in the degradation of our environment, but in the direct and indirect consequences on human health, and more broadly, on human rights. Climate change amplifies existing social, environmental, demographic, economic and political stresses. Its multiplier effect pushes some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people deeper into poverty. A large proportion of the planet’s population already lives in conditions where they are denied many basic human rights. There is no doubt that, without urgent action, deteriorating environmental conditions associated with climate change will see this increase as food and water security declines, communities are damaged or destroyed by extreme weather events and more lives are threatened.
“Climate change-related impacts have a range of implications, both direct and indirect, for the effective enjoyment of human rights including, inter alia, the right to life, the right to adequate food, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to adequate housing, the right to self-determination and human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and recalling that in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.”
-Human Rights Council Resolution 10/4: Human Rights and Climate Change
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