The health effects of climate change may seem like something that future generations will have to handle. The truth is, though, it’s already happening now, fueling everything from allergies and certain cancers to COPD symptom flares.
All of the carbon pollution that comes from things like burning coal and natural gas for electricity, burning gasoline and diesel to power our vehicles and using coal, oil and natural gas to heat our homes is taking a toll on not just the planet’s health, but ours, too. Even modern farming practices contribute to warming greenhouse gases in a major way. (1)
So how does this work? After all, when you look up at the sky, it seems infinite. The reality is if you could hop in a car and drive straight up, you’d reach the atmosphere in just a few minutes. And all of that heat-trapping pollution we’re sending up there? It’s dramatic. The energy trapped by man-made global warming pollution is now equivalent to exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day — 365 days per year. (1, 2)
The record-breaking warming temperatures we’re experiencing are already impacting human health in obvious (and some not-so-obvious) ways. In fact, increasing global temperatures are disrupting the global climate and the earth’s hydrological cycle, leading not only to record high air and sea temperatures, but also to “rain bombs,” “atmospheric rivers” and more extreme flooding, deeper and longer droughts and more frequent and severe storms. (3, 4, 5)
With a warming planet also comes vector-borne diseases and expanding areas where these microbes and diseases multiply and flourish. Mosquitos, ticks and other vectors are experiencing range expansion because warmer weather permits them to move to higher altitudes. This also means a longer breeding season. (And more people dealing with Lyme disease symptoms.) This speeds up incubation times for the pathogens they carry and increases the frequency of “blood meals.” (6)
Health Effects of Climate Change: A Costly Problem
Did I mention it’s becoming super expensive to deal with the health effects of climate change, too? A 2011 study published in the journal Health Affairs looked at how just a few climate events in the U.S. impacted the country’s bottom line. The results make it clear that dealing with climate change isn’t just vital for health, but for economic reasons, too.
In the study, economists looked at six specific climate-related events that took place in the United States between 2002 and 2009:
- Nationwide smog in 2002
- A 2006 heat wave in California
- 2003 wildfires in Southern California
- 2009 flooding in North Dakota
- West Nile Virus outbreak in Louisiana in 2002
- Hurricanes in Florida in 2004
The tab? $14 billion, including $6.5 billion for ozone smog pollution. ($6.3 billion of that alone was attributed to 795 premature deaths.) And toxic smog levels are expected to rise unless we drastically reduce coal, oil and natural gas emissions fast. Since climate change increases temperatures, ozone-forming chemical reactions also increase. (7)
Here are just a few of the many ways that atmospheric pollution is causing climate change that impacts your family’s health…
Top & Emerging Health Effects of Climate Change
Respiratory Distress & Ticker Trouble
COPD. Johns Hopkins University researchers found people with COPD are more likely to experience a decline in lung function and need rescue medications due to higher outdoor temperatures. Even high indoor temperatures can trigger flares. This is particularly concerning if someone can’t get into an air-conditioned space during a heat wave. According to the study authors, the results highlight important implications for treating COPD symptoms as the climate warms. (8)
Wildfire-Related Wheezing … and Heart Attacks? The American Lung Association points out that climate change fuels heat and drought, a recipe for more wildfires. And those microscopic particles in wildfire smoke trigger everything from coughing and asthma flare-ups to heart attacks and premature death, especially for those with heart and lung diseases.
It’s not just people who live in wildfire-prone regions who are at risk. Wildfires blow smoke hundreds of miles away. For instance, a 2002 forest fire in Quebec, Canada, resulted in up to a 30-fold increase in particle pollution in Baltimore, roughly 1,000 miles downwind. (9)
Lung infections. The Yale Center for Pulmonary Infection Research and Treatment says while tuberculosis is more of a problem in other parts of the world than in the U.S., it is on the rise here for the first time in 20 years. But non-tuberculosis mycobacteria infection range is expanding as temperatures rise. This type of infection can require months of antibiotic treatment and is impacting more women than men. Warming temperatures are also more accommodating for the growth of bacteria like Legionella, which causes the potentially life-threatening Legionnaires’ disease. (10)
Legionnaire outbreaks in the United States increased nearly three-fold between 2000 and 2009, with more notable spikes in outbreaks in the eastern part of the country. Some research suggests that Legionnaire outbreaks are more likely one to two weeks after wet, humid, stormy weather, something more common in parts of the country thanks to climate change. (11)
Potent Pollen & Asthma Outbreaks. It’s not just in your head. Allergies are on the rise: In 2000, there were 8,455 grains of pollen per cubic meter. By 2040, that number is projected to bypass 21,000. And get this, allergy season is lasting longer. One study suggests it’s about three weeks longer in certain parts of the U.S. (12) Aside from the obvious link between air pollution and breathing trouble, the increase in extreme heat and precipitation in the U.S. is fueling more asthma outbreaks, too. Extreme during summer months now results in a 23 percent increased risk of asthma hospitalizations. The most vulnerable? Children 5 to 17 years old. (13)
More Health Effects of Climate Change
Uncomfortable Occurrences & Vector-Born Disease
Polluting the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases can create more potent plants and creates favorable conditions for certain infections. In fact, Andrew Dobson, PhD, a Princeton ecologist, says “climate change is disrupting natural ecosystems in a way that is making life better for infectious diseases.”
Out-of-Control Poison Ivy. Does it seem like a simple poison ivy rash is worse these days? It’s not in your head. In 1950, the average plant contained about 15 milligrams of toxic oil per plant. Today? That number surpassed 40 milligrams. It’s anticipated to nearly double by 2060. The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere fuels production of urushiol, the allergenic oil in poison ivy. (14, 15)
Mosquito Mayhem. A warming planet means more vector-borne diseases. As the range and breeding season of mosquitoes expands, we’re seeing more cases of West Nile Virus and even diseases like Zika. Warmer temps also mean faster incubation times for the viruses and increases the frequency of “blood meals.”
Final Thoughts on the Health Effects of Climate Change
- Human practices, including burning oil, natural gas and coal for heating and energy, causes heat-trapping gases to build up in the atmosphere. This pollution can lead to all sorts of health impacts.
- Science tells us that health impacts of climate change include more cases of COPD, depression, Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, lung infections, heat-related deaths and more.
- The health effects of climate change are expensive. Looking at just six specific climate change-related events in the United States between 2002 and 2009, the health costs topped $14 billion.
- Stopping and reversing climate change presents both challenges and opportunities, but drastically reducing the oil, gas and coal we burn can reduce the risk of many diseases.